The Pittsburgh Penguins are full up. There is no more salary-cap space to sign players, and the NHL trade market has ground to a halt in terms of moving players. Taylor Hall signed a one-year deal, and the hot rumor is Mike Hoffman will do similar or the same. The Penguins, for better and worse, are who they are.
And that means if things go sideways, GM Jim Rutherford will be on the phones working for another Penguins trade. Early season trades are typically rare, though Rutherford has engineered multiple early-season Penguins trades in five of the last six seasons.
In December 2014 (it was a bigger move than it sounds now), he acquired Rob Klinkhammer. In December 2015, Rutherford moved Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley. He snared Riley Sheahan in October 2017, then Jamie Oleksiak in December. Rutherford traded Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson in November 2018 and acquired Marcus Pettersson a few weeks later. In October 2019, Rutherford traded Erik Gudbranson,
There isn’t another GM in the NHL who can boast that much activity in the first 25 games of a season.
We’re not going to put Bryan Rust on the list. Despite it being an obvious call, Rust has become a leader inside the Penguins room and figures to become part of the Penguins’ heart, if he’s not already. Also, Evgeni Malkin is off the table. Based on internal conversations this offseason, things would have to blow up spectacularly before we revisit Malkin trade considerations.
Nor will we include Marcus Pettersson and his $4 million salary. While PHN might have included him on the list, the Penguins’ enthusiasm for Pettersson seems firm and genuine.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins start slowly or things do not appear to jell, who could be on the Penguins trade block?
Possible Pittsburgh Penguins 2020-21 Trade Block
1. Jared McCann
His $2.94 million salary is digestible, which makes him both valuable to the Penguins and tradeable. McCann’s versatility has also been a blessing and a curse. Is he a scoring winger with the potential to take his career to the next level, or a speedy defensive center suited for third or fourth line work?
The Penguins addition of Mark Jankowski to be the third line center should give McCann a chance to settle in at LW, but the line will need to form chemistry, and Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker probably block McCann from scoring line duty.
Jared McCann set a career-high in 2018-19 when he split time with the Florida Panthers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He scored 19 goals and 35 points, with most of his goals (11) coming with the Penguins in just 32 games.
However, McCann was also a healthy scratch for one game in the NHL postseason against Montreal.
If Jankowski works at center, but McCann doesn’t light-up the wing, McCann could be trade bait. Or, if the Penguins have other pressing needs, teams could force Rutherford’s hand for the 24-year-old forward.
2. Jason Zucker
Rutherford mortgaged the Penguins’ future for Zucker by giving a No. 1 pick and top defenseman prospect Calen Addison, who continues to grow into a potential NHL defenseman.
Zucker posted more than respectable stats with the Penguins. He scored six goals and six assists in 15 regular-season games, but the eye test and the stat sheet weren’t always in agreement.
It would seem blasphemy to put Zucker on the list, but his impact was inconsistent, and he didn’t develop chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. In 60 minutes played together, the pair scored — wait for it — one goal. Worse, they clearly were not on the same page, let alone reading from the same book.
Zucker, 28, will earn $5.5 million for the next three years, so he would be tough to deal in this current stalemate, which figures to last for a couple of years while the flat cap and lack of revenue squeeze GMs. But Zucker may also become a necessary Penguins trade if 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin kicks down the door to the NHL or McCann proves to be a worthy top-six winger.
Rutherford will most likely take a loss on Zucker if a trade becomes necessary or prudent.
3. Kris Letang
Consider this improbable to near impossible, but it’s there. It’s out there that Letang told more than a few people that he expected to be traded this offseason, as radio hosts friendly with Letang and The Athletic reported.
The Penguins roster is not set up to absorb such a deal, as the Penguins would again lack a third right-side defenseman. Worse, the Penguins wouldn’t truly have a No. 1 defenseman. With respect to John Marino, that would be a worlds-forward leap for the sophomore defenseman and another huge gamble which could create holes on all three pairings.
The Penguins would be unlikely to get equal value back, too. The organization appears accepting of allowing Letang, Malkin, and, of course, Sidney Crosby to ride off into the sunset together.
But, the Letang trade scenario is out there. Rutherford didn’t outright reject the possibility this summer.
4. Zach Aston-Reese
The stocky forward will make only $1 million this season as he heals from left shoulder surgery. Assuming a January start for the 2020-21 NHL season, Aston-Reese will likely begin the year on LTIR. February is a more realistic return date for the Penguins shutdown fourth liner.
ZAR has more offensive prowess to give but prefers to focus on his task at hand. According to CapFriendly.com, the potential power forward will be a restricted free agent after the coming season, but he could also have value to another team.
And Sam Lafferty could elbow his way into the Penguins lineup, making one of them expendable.
An Aston-Reese trade would also maintain the streak of losing players with whom PHN genuinely enjoys chatting in the locker room (assuming we ever get back there).
Pettersson, Rust … or bigger. The Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford gambled on several players, including defenseman Mike Matheson, who was considered by at least one person PHN trusts as “untradeable.”
If the Penguins come together, they could be an explosive team with a dynamite top-six forwards crew and some real push from the back end. If it doesn’t come together, Rutherford has shown himself to be both fearless and swift.
There could well be a surprise Penguins trade waiting around the corner because of the changed NHL economic picture. It’s almost ridiculous to consider trading Jake Guentzel or Brian Dumoulin. Those players have become pillars of the lineup, but the Penguins are nearly out of moveable assets.
Something will have to give if the Penguins gambles don’t pay off. It could be a wild year in Pittsburgh as if it hasn’t been already.