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Dubas at the deadline: What the Pens’ GM past could say about the future

The NHL trade deadline is about a month away

2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The All Star game is in the rear view mirror (and the less said the better about that dud of an event) which puts the NHL trade deadline as the next upcoming major milestone on the hockey calendar. That is coming up fast at this point in nearly a month, on Friday March 8th.

For the Penguins, what they have is largely what they might get. The team has already traded an upcoming first round pick for Erik Karlsson, as well as a second rounder in 2025. The Pens are without their third rounder this year as well as a result of last year’s trade that sent Brock McGinn to Anaheim for Dmitri Kulikov.

In addition to not having a lot to give away, Pittsburgh is also constrained by a lack of cap space this season. As a result, there are rumors that the Pens won’t be major players at the deadline and may sit tight with who they have.

Checking into Kyle Dubas’ past from Toronto, via CapFriendly, here’s how he navigated last year’s trade deadline season. In many ways it was a master class of asset management and improving a team in a tight cap situation.

The big move was a few weeks out from the deadline, when Dubas worked in a third team to tap down the cap hit of Ryan O’Reilly into something manageable for Toronto. Through two teams retaining the max of 50% (and then 50% of what was left) the Maple Leafs got O’Reilly’s $7.0 million cap hit on their books for only $1.875 million. That cost a heavy price for Toronto on the rental and cap manipulation of a first, second, third and fourth round picks, but they got depth with Noel Acciari for added value.

The second move was a big one as well, Dubas sent a first and second round pick to get stout defender Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty from Chicago. The Blackhawks also retained $2 million on McCabe’s already manageable salary - and the kicker is that was for 2.25 seasons to go. Great value play there.

Those two bold moves by Dubas positioned the Leafs very well for the stretch run. It cost a lot of draft capital but adding a past Conn Smythe winner in O’Reilly, a solid defender and a couple of hard-working forward options would be a banner deadline for anyone.

Dubas wasn’t done.

To recoup some of that draft capital, Dubas got Toronto a first round pick back by sending away Rasmus Sandin. By adding McCabe and his contract, Sandin was becoming an excess piece. Getting the under-the-radar valuable Erik Gustafsson back kept the depth of the NHL team in tact.

Rounding out his deadline work, Dubas flipped Pierre Engvall (rendered less needed by getting Lafferty and Acciari) to the Islanders for a third round pick. Then burnt a third to add a physical depth element in Luke Schenn.

A manager can’t do much more in a tight cap world then all that wheeling and dealing. Dubas revamped a lot of his team and set the stage for the players and coaches to do their part for a playoff run.

Dubas repeated the pattern above to upgrade and recoup draft picks at the 2022 deadline.

The Leafs added veteran top-four defender Mark Giordano at 50% of his contract for two second round picks and a third. They added back to their draft stock to get the third round pick back by dealing away Travis Dermott.

At the 2021 deadline, the big move was to add Nick Foligno at 25% of his total salary. Dubas also spent a third rounder to add to his goalie depth via David Rittich.

For 2024, Dubas said on his radio show earlier in the season how adding a player like John Ludvig via waivers could go onto save the team from having to trade a mid-round pick to add defensive depth. That might not stop the Pens from making a move to add to their overall blueline, but goes to show that deadline thinking goes back to the start of the year when a team can add a player without having to pay an acquisition cost.

As mentioned above, the Pens are already depleted from the Karlsson trade with their top picks in the near future, leaving Dubas’ wheeling and dealing to get draft picks as an interesting angle in the next month.

Pittsburgh probably can’t trade a first round pick to add one of the elite pieces on the market these days due to decisions that have already been made.

This outlook and past tendencies could mean Dubas will look to boost his mid-round 2024 selections, if he wants to move a player such as P.O Joseph that might not fit and also serve to clear up a modest amount of cap space for other moves.

The best news yet might be that the Pens have a couple of pseudo “deadline additions” in the form of their own players. Ludvig and Reilly Smith are set to return from the injury bay before too long. If the Pens opt to keep Jake Guentzel, he essentially would be an internal boost for the rest of this season by not making a move.

For the first time in recent memory, the Penguins probably won’t and shouldn’t be acting like huge buyers at the NHL trade deadline to bring on short-term adds for meaningful draft picks going out the door. That will be a change for the headlines and big names, but it won’t mean that Dubas will have to be inactive. His trade deadline history shows that there is likely to be more than one transaction to shuffle depth players in and out of the team while they gear up for the rest of the season.