The Pittsburgh Penguins trade of $4 million defenseman Erik Gudbranson Friday was an exchange of an asset for salary cap space. The Penguins received a seventh-round pick in 2021 and Andreas Martinsen, a 29-year-old minor leaguer with 152 games NHL experience. The physical returns pale in comparison to the real get. The Penguins got salary cap space.
Rookie John Marino had supplanted Gudbranson in the Penguins lineup, despite Gudbranson’s significantly improved play since being acquired last February. It looked like Gudbranson had found his hockey home, but that’s sports. When a younger, cheaper option arrives on a team that can’t afford a free lunch, trades happen.
With Gudbranson’s $4 million off the books, the Penguins are no longer in salary cap hell. They now have real and useable salary cap space. When the team eventually gets their lineup on the ice together and figures out what they need, they will have the cap space to make moves.
But it was a situation started by one bad trade.
In November of the 2018-19 season, the Penguins were sputtering and stale. After a summer of denying that locker room problems existed, the Penguins were in the midst of one-win in 10 games streak. Things were ugly. It was the first time since back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in which the Penguins looked in the mirror and wondered if they were good enough.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford used his appearance on the team radio show to fire a shot across the bow of his team and threaten another Penguins trade. He called them “stale” and threatened changes. Those locker room problems which had begun the season before were creating distractions inside and sloppy play on the outside.
In May 2018, PHN first published the story, “Lid Comes Off Phil Kessel Situation.” The situation had been festering and it bled into the 2018-19 season. Things were not going well and there was not a strong locker room.
“I wonder if this group has been together too long,” Rutherford said. “And maybe we need to change it up. And that’s what I’ll watch for in the next few games,” Rutherford said in Nov. 2018.
Yet the Penguins denial and attempts to work around the issues set off the chain of events that are now complete. Rutherford should have dealt Kessel when he had the chance, and some in the Penguins organization pushed for it at the 2018 NHL Draft.
Instead, Rutherford attempted to shake the Penguins room by trading a veteran, rather than the major surgery needed. He dealt LW Carl Hagelin to LA for the ultra-vanilla Tanner Pearson. Hagelin was a part of the Penguins’ inner core. On the ice, he was fast and provided space and pucks for his centers, Evgeni Malkin, or whoever would pivot the third line. But Rutherford needed a shakeup, and Hagelin was a pending UFA and didn’t waste much ink on the scoresheet.
Pearson was stumbling in LA after being part of their most recent Stanley Cup championship in 2014. Last season was the first year of his four-year, $3.75 million contract and it did not start well. He had precisely one assist in the first 17 games and was a minus-nine.
So, the Penguins swapped a popular core figure for a younger scoring winger amid an ice-cold slump. And the Penguins equalized the salary in the deal by eating a small portion of Hagelin’s $4 million paycheck. But Pearson didn’t provide more scoring for the Penguins, nor did he provide many contributions at all.
Pearson had three goals in his first five games as a Penguin, but ended his Penguins career with one goal in his final 15 games. His stat line (9g, 5a) in 44 games belied his invisibility, which was the opposite of Hagelin, who stat line typically belied his essential contributions.
And so the Penguins trade saddled Rutherford with a bland player on a new four-year contract.
The Penguins eventually tried to re-acquire Hagelin until someone in the front office realized teams may not acquire a player if they’re already paying part of their salary.
So, Rutheford again worked the trade phones with the west coast and plucked struggling defenseman Erik Gudbranson from Vancouver for Pearson. Fans had derided Gudbranson in the great Northwest. The big defenseman didn’t fit well with Vancouver’s system, but he was awarded a three-year, $12 million contract anyway. Gudbranson was getting the Jack Johnson treatment.
The trade worked well for the Penguins. Gudbranson formed a solid pairing with Marcus Pettersson and provided shelter for the Penguins star players who had been under assault from more physical opponents. Even rowdy Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson was on good-behavior when the Penguins and Washington squared off.
But that pesky salary cap thing was in the way and Marino needed space.
Rutherford made a leap of faith in July. He bought Brandon Tanev, the shiny new toy, at full price, assuming that things around the NHL would work as they always have. He would be able to dump salary upon a rebuilding team in exchange for an excess asset. But those things didn’t materialize over the summer. The rebuilding teams realized there were far more teams which needed to dump salary than teams able to accept it.
So the situation dragged on…and on. Rutherford’s primary choice to deal was Jack Johnson.
“We all know the situation in here,” Johnson told PHN on the eve of the regular season as he firmly denied he was told he was involved in a pending deal.
But two bad trades begot a third. The Penguins had to dump salary and Gudbranson’s contract made him a prime candidate. If Marino continues upon this development path and anchors the right side of third pairing with swift skates and some offensive push, the Penguins won’t miss Gudbranson. The gamble is a good one for the Penguins.
Everything has been undone. Tanev has replaced Hagelin in the lineup, and the salaries of Pearson and Gudbranson are gone. It took nearly 12 months to do and undo the situation, which should have been solved by trading Kessel in the first place. The return for Kessel would have been much greater, and the lingering and exacerbated problems which eventually sunk the 2018-19 Penguins could have been solved.
It was a long detour but it’s all done. Finally.
Editors Note: The original version incorrectly stated the Penguins had a 10-game winless streak in Nov. 2018. The streak was one win in 10 games.