The Pittsburgh Penguins made a pair of trades on Saturday, flipping their second pairing to a pair of teams in exchange for unique defensemen at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Jeff Petry is finally a Penguins d-man, while it may have been GM Ron Hextall’s most prolific day as a GM with a pair of trades that sent $9.2 million out the door, acquired a third-round pick, lost a fourth-rounder, and accepted nearly $7 million back in salary.
The Penguins acquired zippy 22-year-old defenseman Ty Smith, who had a sophomore slump. Renowned defenseman Jeff Petry. Struggling forward Ryan Poehling. They also got a third-round pick from the New Jersey Devils.
The Penguins gave up John Marino, Mike Matheson, and a fourth-rounder.
On paper, it’s an excellent day for Hextall, who also managed to clear about $2 million in cap space. The team has about $1.8 million on paper and about $2.6 million in real money if they clear one more defenseman by trade or stashing Smith in the minors.
The Good: Petry, Size, and Money
Jeff Petry, 34, is finally in a Penguins sweater after NHL trade rumors tied him to the Penguins for months as a Kris Letang replacement. However, he won’t replace Letang but play behind him.
Petry is a bigger body than John Marino, who was traded earlier Saturday. Petry is 6-foot-3, 207 pounds. Presumably, Petry will take the second pairing with Marcus Pettersson or P.O Joseph. Mark Friedman has an outside chance to claim the spot.
The Penguins wanted some beef. They got it.
“When the season was over, we sat down with the coaches, management, and staff and talked about our team. And the one thing we felt we wanted to do was get a little bit heavier on the back end,” Hextall said. “I think with Petry and (Jan) Rutta, we feel like we accomplished that.”
Petry is also a far more accomplished defenseman than John Marino, whom he is replacing. Petry can kill penalties, run a power play and put points on the board at even strength.
He’s an all-around defenseman who scored more than 40 points in his last four seasons before a dip to 27 points with last season’s woeful Canadiens.
Hextall also added a bit of forward size with Ryan Poehling, the “throw-in” in the Petry deal. The 6-foot-2, 197-pound forward is a natural center though not overly physical. In 85 career NHL games, he has 79 hits and 38 blocks. Last season, the down-line player was primarily a center but had 24 giveaways compared to 21 takeaways.
“When Ryan was drafted, we really liked him (25th overall, 2017) … We really liked Ryan, felt like he’s a big body that is going to get better,” Hextall said. “Things haven’t gone exactly how he would have liked them to go in Montreal. We’re hoping that change can spur a guy on, and he can be a good two-way player. He’s got good size, he plays the middle of the ice, and he can also play the wing.”
Poehling could be a nice get, and it comes with little to no risk.
The right side of the Pittsburgh Penguins defense is now big, talented, and very good. Kris Letang, Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta.
Hextall has done a masterful job retooling his right-side defense.
The Maybe: Ty Smith
The Penguins may have completed an Ocean’s 11-level heist on New Jersey. Ty Smith was the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and had an eye-opening rookie year in 2020-21.
He can skate, he has puck skills, but he’s “average” sized at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. Hextall indirectly challenged him to win a job in training camp.
“I think part of the development process for young players. You’re going to have your ups and downs. It’s just part of learning and part of developing into a pro. We hope that Ty will come in and build on his first year, learn from his second year and continue to become a better player,” said Hextall. “He’s a young man. He’s 22 years old. He played as a 20-year-old… So we do believe the upside is is pretty high.”
Smith will presumably compete with P.O Joseph and Mark Friedman for the third pairing role. However, Smith is the only one who is waivers exempt, so he will need to clearly win the job to force Hextall to expose one of the others to waivers.
Pittsburgh Penguins Problem
To build the impenetrable right side, Hextall had to give up his best left-side defenseman. After the second Penguins trade on Saturday, Mike Matheson is now a Montreal Canadiens defenseman.
“Mike Matheson is a defenseman who was playing top-4 minutes in Pittsburgh that brings a lot of the qualities that we lose in a Jeff Petry in terms of his ability to transport the puck,” Montreal GM Kent Hughes said.
Matheson is also only 28, makes $4.875 million (which became a bargain), and is an elite skater. He was arguably the heir apparent to the Penguins’ top pairing if Brian Dumoulin does not rebound from a poor season in which injuries slowed him but never seemed to recover.
To get, you must give.
“When you’re trading for good players, you’re going to have to give up good players. Mike is a good player. We certainly valued Mike, but we just feel like Jeff at this point is a little better fit for us,” Hextall said. “He can play all situations. He can log big minutes. And we just felt like right now with our right side with Letang and Petry, and Rutta is extremely strong.”
Extremely strong is correct.
But that left side is not so strong. Dumoulin was decimated by injury and looked like a 40-year-old defenseman last season. Marcus Pettersson is an acceptable NHL defenseman but is neither heavy nor strong near the net. His offense is also lacking. Pettersson isn’t capable of sliding up to the top pairing should Dumoulin be injured or stumble again.
Hextall has been pulling rabbits out of his hat this week. He’s been aggressive and improved the Penguins. However, he’s also left one significant vulnerability.
I thought Matheson could be the Penguins’ top defenseman in a few years. Instead, Petry will be hanging up the skates. The team is genuinely in win-now mode. If Hextall can shore up the left side before the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be a formidable team.
But that’s a BIG if.
Penguins Trade Grade: Give Hextall a solid B with the left side issue pulling down the grade from an A+. The Penguins easily won the Marino for Smith trade. This was the aggressive Hextall that Philadelphia didn’t get to see. He went swashbuckler and was 1-0-1 in the two trades.
It’s been a good, but risky day for Hextall and the Penguins.