We are going to spend our Monday morning hopping back in the time machine to take another look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist-for-Mike Matheson trade. Because, why not?
It was one of the last moves former general manager Jim Rutherford made for the Penguins, and it was one that was not well received from the very beginning.
Hornqvist was a popular player (in the locker room and among fans), had been a key part of two Stanley Cup winning teams, and was still at the time a very, very productive player and important part of the team’s forward depth and power play unit. There was always an expectation that he was going to be traded when he was, given that the Penguins needed to shed some salary cap space and because there was going to be change after a disappointing postseason run. So the trade itself was not the issue.
The issue was that the trade involved the Penguins taking on an even more significant contrract and adding salary cap space to their payroll due to the addition of Colton Sceviour from the Florida Panthers. Adding to the frustration at the time was Rutherford’s realization that the trade actually added to the salary cap after he made it (he initially argued they cut cap space, only to be informed that Sceviouor’s contract increased it; it was a stunning moment).
Their respective play on the ice did not do much to change perception of the trade. Hornqvist was still Hornqvist (good, productive, a cage rattler to opponents) while Matheson seemed to be a 50/50 split of occasional brilliance with “what are you doing out there?” moments. It probably did not help that his first couple of weeks with the team, when opinions were going to be formed, was almost exclusively the latter type of moments.
But something has happened this season.
Matheson has not only played some of the best hockey of his career, he has been really good. A lot of it — the bulk of it — is probably just simple deployment and usage from the coaching staff, which has been a key for the Penguins with a lot of these defensemen reclamation projects. They are not really changing anybody, they are just using these players in the right role. They are not asking Matheson to be a 25-minute per night top pairing defender because they do not need him to be that. And that is not the type of player Matheson is. You put players in the right role and let them play to their strengths, you are going to get a lot of value out of that player.
That is largely what is happening here.
The reward has been a career year for Matheson that has continued over the past week. I thoought he was outstanding against Ottawa on Thursday night, including one particular shift in the third period where he shut down a Senators rush and then forced a turnover to lead the Penguins’ rush the other way. He followed that up on Sunday by playing another strong game in New Jersey that featured him scoring his seventh goal of the season to tie the game in the third period.
He is having a legitimately strong season. So strong, in fact, that it has probably been the better season of the two players involved in the trade.
Matheson’s actual offensive production has virtually matched Hornqvist’s in Florida this season (important to note, one is defenseman and the other is a forward. Duh) while also posting the best underlying numbers of his career. He has been very strong across the board while pretty much eliminating the glaring mistakes that made him stand out so negatively in the first half of the 2020-21 season.
I do not know if the Penguins “won” this trade because Hornqvist is still very good when healthy and helped give the Panthers a lot of what they needed to take the next step in their development. But he is 35 years old, has seen his production drop, and I am not sure it is going to rebound much next season when he still counts more than $5 million against the salary cap at age 36. Matheson is also still signed for another five years after this season at a salary cap hit of $4.875 million per season. That is a significant commitment for a third pairing defender (even if an outstanding one).
Having said all of that, this trade does certainly look a lot different than the initial perceptions of it more than a year ago. Hornqvist, just based on his age, is going to start declining (and he has) and the Penguins are not really hurting for forward depth the past two seasons. That is actually one of their biggest strengths as a team. They have also gotten a boost to their defense with a playmaker that has found a role in his spot.
Now, the key becomes whether or not Matheson can continue this level of play into the future. If he does, they are probably getting $4.875 million worth of production and play right now regardless of what the role actually is. Worse defenders than Matheson are going to get more money than that (or comparable money) for five or six years on the open market this offseason. Hell, we just watched Cody Ceci turn his play in Pittsburgh this past season into a four-year deal worth more than $3.25 million per season.
Maybe the Hornqvist trade was not the most perfectly pulled off deal. Maybe there was a better trade to be had somewhere. But those are all unknowns. All that we know now is the trade they did make has worked out far better than it looked like it was going to work out a year ago.