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One year ago today the Pens traded for John Marino

Some times the small trades become big deals

Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

In what feels like a moment ago and a lifetime ago at the very same time, one year ago today the Penguins made what looked like a minor trade when they acquired the rights to John Marino.

In exchange, all they had to send the Edmonton Oilers was a conditional sixth round pick. If Marino elected to go back to Harvard for his senior season and then signed with a different NHL team, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have to give Edmonton anything at all.

So, with that in mind, it really shows how far Marino has come in the last 12 months, going from a footnote trade and stepping into the scene as an instant, ready-made top four NHL defenseman. That’s rare and an incredibly special happenstance.

For the Pens, it was a stroke of genius. They had a salary cap problem last summer, and Marino would provide the key to solving it. Marino’s emergence led to making the expensive (and not very good) Erik Gudbranson into an expendable piece, and the Pens dealt him to Anaheim for a future seventh round pick and a minor leaguer who didn’t stick around long.

So, in a vacuum, in comes Marino+ a seventh, out goes Gudbranson and a sixth. Yeah, that will do!

The discovery of Marino is often attributed to the scouting work of Kevin Stevens, who had a personal connection in the two’s native Boston and had been tracking Marino’s progress for years.

“He played with my older son,” said Stevens. “I coached him (when) he was 8 years old. We had a great team, too. We’d play all the best teams in the country growing up. You could see he was just a steady player, a steady defenseman. I just always thought he was a pretty good player. It was a matter of him developing. He got better. He kept getting better (at Harvard). I do a lot of college free-agent stuff, so I see him play a lot. He was one of those guys we got lucky became available. And I really liked him.”

Working down to Marino was a stroke of genius for Stevens and the Pens, because John Marino wasn’t even the prize defenseman at Harvard in 2018-19. That would have been Adam Fox, an eventual 2019-20 Calder finalist, who scored 48 points in 33 games that season. By comparison, Marino only had 11 points, ranking fourth on the team behind Fox (3rd round, CGY), Reilly Walsh (3rd round NJ, 2017) and Jack Rathbone (4th, VAN, 2017).

Marino was older than all of those players. But wasn’t inclined to sign with Edmonton, who had higher drafted players at the same position like Evan Bouchard and Ethan Bear who would get him lost in the shuffle on a team not exactly known for developing a ton of defenders anyways.

Fox was the one of the radar though in the same situation. It was known he wasn’t going to sign with Calgary, so they dealt him to Carolina as a part of the bigger trade that sent Dougie Hamilton to Carolina for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin. Fox wasn’t going to sign with the ‘Canes either, so they traded him to the New York Rangers (the NY native’s preferred spot) for a second and third pick.

So while much of the hockey world was preoccupied with those events and the spotlight on the Hobey Baker finalist in Fox, Marino was under the radar. Perhaps the fourth best defender on a decent but not great Harvard team. Stevens got the Pens to acquire him, they gave a sales job that he would have a chance to make the NHL team, and the rest as they say, is history.

It’s tough to find players like John Marino, but imperative to try. The Pens do this several times a year, with the next batch likely to be NCAA signing Drew O’Connor and a 6’6 Czech Radim Zohorna. Sometimes these players blossom into NHL assets like Marino or Zach Aston-Reese. Sometimes they fade away into obscurity like Sergei Plotnikov.

Marino’s story is a very satisfying convergence of scouting, opportunity to acquire and flexibility to give a young player a chance even when there were existing NHL caliber players under contract at the right defense spot. It all worked out, due to the player exceeding all reasonable expectations and performing at a very high level.

In many ways, the last 12 months for the Pens and Marino has been a fairytale story, right down to the defender scoring his first career goal in his first visit as an NHL player to his hometown of Boston, in front of his family and friends.

You can’t make that stuff up, but the Pens and John Marino did it on a journey that started a year ago today.