The NHL trade deadline is nearly three weeks away, but the first shoe has not yet dropped. Like the RFA market this summer, the league is moving at a glacial pace while the players pile up waiting for something to break. NHL execs are watching Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who likes to finish his Penguins trade shopping early. Last year, Rutherford pulled the heist of the Florida Panthers when he snagged Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad for Derrick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and three draft picks on Feb. 1.
The mediocrity in the Western Conference is already creating a jumbled mess both in the standings and on the trade market. Teams haven’t committed to moving players because they still have a chance at a playoff spot and, more importantly, playoff revenues.
After the Penguins lost Jake Guentzel for at least the remainder of the regular season, a top-six winger who will fit with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin became Rutherford’s stated priority for any Penguins trade.
PHN has ranked the potential top-six wingers, based on the likelihood of availability, cost, and fit within the Penguins uptempo scheme. For example, the Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker is on the top of the list because multiple outlets last week reported Rutherford circled back on Zucker.
However, a source told PHN Zucker would not be easy to acquire, and a first-round pick would likely be part of the ask.
1. Jason Zucker
Zucker has three years remaining at $5.5 million. The apparent apple of the Penguins eye will be expensive both on the payroll and in terms of ask. Zucker put the summer trade chaos in which he was dealt to the Penguins until Phil Kessel nixed the deal, and Zucker was the subject of multiple trade talks, including a nearly consummated deal with Calgary.
On the ice, Zucker can fly. He plays with grit and has some finishing touch. This season, Zucker has clicked with top center Eric Staal and winger Mats Zuccarello to form the Minnesota top line. Zucker has 28 points (14g, 14a) in 40 games. He has scored more than 20 goals in each of the last three seasons, including a 31-goal outburst in 2017-18.
As noted, he will be a tough get. Minnesota is only five points behind Vegas, with a couple of games in hand for the second wild-card spot. Minnesota GM Bill Guerin has incentives to push for a playoff spot and keep the productive Zucker. However, Guerin also must retool on the fly because Minnesota saddled themselves with the albatross contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The 35-year-olds each have five years remaining and a $7.5 million cap hit.
Count PHN in the camp, which sees a rental as the better way to go, but Zucker may be the best fit with the Penguins and thus worth the ask.
2. Chris Kreider
This deal has Jim Rutherford written all over it, doesn’t it? Kreider, 29, will be an unrestricted free agent, and the New York Rangers are still rebuilding. As Elliotte Friedman reported in December, “All of the contenders are believed to be interested.”
Kreider is physical, can skate, and score in the dirty areas. He’s already approaching 20 goals this season. In 48 games, Kreider has popped 32 points, including 17 goals.
The ask for Kreider could surpass his value with so many teams, including Boston and St. Louis, potentially interested. If the ask stays reasonable, circle this one.
3. Andreas Athanasiou
The lightning-fast, skilled winger from the Detroit Red Wings is a favorite at PHN. His 30-goal season in 2018-19 was no accident, but his significantly reduced totals this season do raise some red flags. Detroit is in last place in the NHL with little hope of catching No. 30. They need help and have not committed long-term to Athanasiou.
The 25-year-old winger could blend well with the Penguins star centers. Athanasiou’s two-year, $6 million contract expires after this season, but he will be an RFA, so Detroit GM Steve Yzerman does hold the cards.
Nothing is guaranteed in Detroit, but they will likely maintain the speed game for which they have been building. So, they could keep their winger who has just five goals and 19 points in 36 games, as one of the pillars to build around. Or they could collect some assets now.
If Yzerman opens the phones, Rutherford should pounce.
4. Tyler Toffoli
The LA Kings are going nowhere, and their rebuild is just beginning. Toffoli is part of the old guard and a UFA this July. He’s also fast, kills penalties, and a streaky scorer. What could he do if airlifted into Pittsburgh?
Toffoli, 27, could easily fit with the Penguins, but his impact is questionable. This season, he has 27 points in 49 games, including only 12 goals. He’s not special in any one area or a high-point producer. If he fails to hit the 20-goal mark this season, it will be the third time in four seasons he has failed to do so.
As a rental player, he should be easier to acquire if Rutherford finds the market to be too expensive.
5. Ilya Kovalchuk
Rutherford passed when Kovalchuk, 36. was a free agent just a few weeks ago. Kovalchuk has shown everyone that he still has considerable offensive talent by scoring eight points in his eight games with the Montreal Canadiens, who have since fallen out of the playoff picture.
If Rutherford passed the first time, he seems unlikely to go back for a second shot, especially now that it will cost him an asset. The scuttle is an early-round pick, perhaps a third-rounder. Of course, if more teams call Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, a second-round pick isn’t out of the question, especially if Kovalchuk continues his point per game pace.
6. Tomas Tatar
The Montreal Canadiens leading scorer has another year left on his contract with a $5.3 million AAV. Tatar, 29, has a healthy 44 points (17g, 27a) in 51 games. He also scored 25 goals with itMontreal, last season.
He can score goals. He’s also setting the message boards afire with the potential that Bergevin will make him available. Since the Montreal GM is on the hot seat, anything is possible, but if Montreal wants to win sooner than later, keeping players like Tatar seems to be in their best interest.
PHN erred yesterday. Tatar was dealt at the 2018 deadline from Detroit to Vegas for a first, a second, and a third-round pick. The creative winger skates well and has some tenacity, but he’s not physical. His ability to play a top-six role with the Penguins is not in doubt. His price tag certainly will be.
Tatar’s cost probably keeps him in Montreal, or certainly away from Pittsburgh, but Derrick Brassard was out of Rutherford’s reach, too.
Wild Card: Anthony Duclair
No one is talking about Duclair. PHN believes the Penguins were one of the half dozen teams which offered Duclair a contract in July of 2018, but he chose less money because he felt Columbus was the right fit. He was wrong and was dealt to Ottawa, where things have finally picked up for the fast, skilled winger.
This season with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators, Duclair, 24, already has 21 goals and 33 points in 48 games. It is his best output since 20 goals in his rookie year with the Arizona Coyotes in 2014-15.
He will be an RFA after the season when his one-year, $1.6 million contract expires. Duclair isn’t physical, but he will set a career-high in hits this season. He already has 42, and he should easily surpass his career-best of 46. He’s putting it together, and the Penguins were interested once.