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9 Penguins Defensemen: The Options of Who Stays & Who Plays

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Olli Maatta: Photo by Greg Thornberry. All Rights Reserved

The Pittsburgh Penguins will soon have nine NHL-quality defensemen on their roster when Justin Schultz is cleared to play after he suffered a fractured leg in the fourth game of the season. Schultz return will occur next week or soon afterward. That’s probably one too many defenseman to carry on the roster which could be a goldmine as the NHL Trade deadline approaches.

So what will Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan and Jacques Martin do with the lineup? What will GM Jim Rutherford do with the surplus? Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak have popped up in genuine trade speculation. The latter more so, lately.

The Penguins will also have salary cap considerations when Schultz is activated off IR. They will be about $227,000 over the cap.

It will be a complicated situation, as Shultz will shuffle the deck and alter the chemistry. For example, Schultz has terrific chemistry with both Jamie Oleksiak and Jack Johnson while Juuso Riikola has played his best games with Olli Maatta.

The Penguins could have a situation in which one their defensemen is a top-four choice–Oleksiak or Johnson–and the other becomes a healthy scratch, as Oleksiak has been since he returned from a concussion on Jan. 4. 

The Easy Route

The Penguins could simply demote Juuso Riikola to the WBS Penguins or hold their breath and send Chad Ruhwedel through waivers. In this scenario, one or both could be sent down to clear the necessary cap space and the roster spot.

Marcus Pettersson and Johnson would remain the third pairing. Oleksiak would sidesaddle Schultz because they have formed a solid pairing and Maatta would be a healthy scratch–because Maatta and Johnson have played together several times and it never went well. Bluntly, Maatta and Johnson formed a dreadful pairing which would necessitate Pettersson remaining in the lineup ahead of Maatta.

Analysis: It’s a near zero percent chance this is the route. The Penguins like Riikola because he’s a fast skating, chippy defenseman whose game is growing as the season progresses. It appears they like Riikola more then Oleksiak, which is somewhat surprising. Also making this scenario implausible is Maatta in the press box. The Penguins feel Maata is a top-four defenseman.

The above could easily play out and the Penguins may only lose Ruhwedel, but from reports, internal conversations and actions, this is DOA.

The Odds Favorite

Trade Jamie Oleksiak.

It appears Oleksiak has slipped down the depth chart since Tom Wilson got the jump and landed a flush right hand which concussed Oleksiak. Like every Penguins defenseman except Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, Oleksiak had an up and down first half. Side changes, pairing changes, inconsistent team play and spotty goaltending made life difficult for the Penguins remaining defensemen to fill Schultz’ role.

Oleksiak, 6-foot-7, 255 pounds and a freight train when he hits, skates well, has a good shot and a full toolbox. However, the abundance of physical talent can be a negative as his game gets too big; he can be lured into trying to do too much. And when his game gets big, it gets too sloppy.

Oleksiak offers teams a big defenseman with a long reach, skating ability and thump. In 36 games this season, Oleksiak has 11 points (4g, 7a) and 97 hits. However, Oleksiak is not one of the Penguins top penalty killers which slides him down the depth chart.

This summer, the big defenseman signed a three-year worth $2.137 million annually, so salary cap considerations should not be an issue. In this scenario, Johnson would play with Schultz and Maatta-Riikola would form a decent third pairing. Pettersson becomes the seventh defenseman.

Analysis: The Oleksiak-Schultz pairing played very well last season. It was so good that it should give the Penguins pause. Oleksiak’s very affordable contract also makes it hard to part with him but it now appears this may be the route the Penguins choose.

Dark Horse

Trade Maatta.

Oleksiak would return to the left side with Schultz. Pettersson and Johnson would be the third pairing. Or perhaps the team would give Riikola a chance to play with Pettersson before making either a consistent healthy scratch.

This situation may become necessary pending the Derick Brassard trade situation. The Penguins may need to clear cap room to make a deal or subsequent deals. While the Oleksiak may be the preferred choice to move, Maatta may be the necessary out.

Maatta has been steady since a slow start to the season. Playing with Riikola has raised his game, too. He will never be an offensive weapon though he has 12 points (1g, 11a) in 47 games. Maatta will always look slower than he is, though he is far from speedy. His patient, cool game could work well with a Western Conference team which isn’t on speed.

Maatta and Riikola are both 24-year-old Finns. The country and language connection undoubtedly help Riikola, too. One month ago, Maatta was the heavy favorite to be moved, but Riikola has changed the situation for everyone.

And those are the primary options. Leave your choices below in the comments section.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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