Ron Hextall doesn’t make a habit of divulging his personnel plans for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He made a concession to the obvious after signing former Tampa Bay defenseman Jan Rutta Wednesday, however.
Hextall acknowledged that, with nine defensemen on one-way contracts — none of whom are exempt from waivers — he is going to have to trade one. Probably two, for that matter.
Hextall did not, of course, specify who he expects to deal; the only guy who would appear to be off-limits is Kris Letang, because of the no-movement clause in the contract he signed last week. (Brian Dumoulin and Mike Matheson have limited no-trade clauses.)
Marcus Pettersson was the focus of much trade speculation during the past season, and John Marino was mentioned pretty often, too. Neither was a surprise, given that both have salary-cap hits of more than $4 million and did not perform to expectations.
There was no real urgency for Hextall to make a move then, however, because the Penguins generally carried the standard complement of seven defensemen on their major-league roster, and had a waivers-exempt guy, P.O Joseph, who could move back and forth from Wilkes-Barre, if needed.
The situation, though, has changed. Rutta has been added to the mix — yeah, Nathan Beaulieu has been removed by becoming an unrestricted free agent, but he never really was in it after being acquired from Winnipeg — and Joseph now would have to clear waivers to go to Wilkes-Barre during the coming season.
The chances of Joseph making it through unclaimed are about the same as those of Dominik Simon winning the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2022-23.
Of the top nine defensemen on the Penguins’ depth chart, five are right-handed, although two of those, Rutta and Mark Friedman, have experience playing on both sides.
Having so many righties is one of the reasons, albeit not the only one, Marino might be the defenseman most likely to move on.
After having an exceptional rookie season, Marino struggled mightily in his second and was ordinary in his third. Along the way, he went from being Letang’s eventual successor as cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense corps to working on the third pairing.
Nonetheless, Marino showed in 2019-20, after then-GM Jim Rutherford acquired his rights from Edmonton for a sixth-round draft choice, that he is capable of being a factor at both ends of the ice.
Other teams couldn’t help but notice, and there surely are some GMs who believe that Marino can get back to that level. Frankly, that doesn’t require a hyperactive imagination; Marino’s biggest challenge might be simply regaining confidence in how well he can play this game.
Good right-handed defensemen are a precious commodity, and Marino might represent an opportunity for a team to obtain one at a yard-sale price, compared to his value of a few years ago. Sure, it’s possible he will remain ordinary for the remaining five years on his contract, but a club with a little cap space to spare could recognize the potential payoff for acquiring him.
While it would cost more than Rutherford paid to secure Marino’s rights from the Oilers, that investment could prove to be a particularly shrewd one if Marino gets his game back in synch.
With his major-league roster seemingly fleshed out following Day 1 of free agency, Hextall would be well-advised to do something that disappeared from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ management playbook years ago: Swap a playing asset — i.e., a real, active player — for a future one.
To wit, a draft choice. You’ve probably heard of those, even though the Penguins have had so few, for so many years.
Re-signing Evgeni Malkin and Letang leaves no doubt that the Penguins remain in win-now mode, but their surplus of defensemen allows Hextall to look to the future. The future beyond the next game, that is.
Because there are no significant holes in the major-league lineup (although some spots could be upgraded), there’s no urgency to get an active player back in a deal for Marino, or any other defenseman.
Since NHL rules allow teams to exceed the salary-cap ceiling of $82.5 million by up to 10 percent during the offseason — the Pittsburgh Penguins are hovering near the ceiling, depending on how the roster would be constructed — Hextall doesn’t have to move immediately. He can take time to explore the market, see precisely which teams are seeking what. and how intent they are in adding that piece.
Need a left-hander? Yeah, he can spare one of them. A righty? You came to the right place for those, too.
Pick the one you like, and make it known what you’re willing to pay. And the currency in this case is a draft choice. Which round? That’s negotiable, of course. The price will be higher for Marino than, say, Chad Ruhwedel.
Hextall often talks about trying to contend for a Stanley Cup while trying to replenish the franchise’s pool of young talent, which has been drained by so many trades designed to provide immediate roster upgrades.
Those objectives usually are at cross-purposes — if a team tries to focus on its present and its future at the same time, it likely will not really do justice to either — but having a couple of extra defensemen puts Hextall in a position to do just that.
It’s an opportunity he should not squander.