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Is Rutherford’s Best Play to Package Johnson with Murray?



Pittsburgh Penguins Trade, Matt Murray, Jack Johnson

The Pittsburgh Penguins may have only six days to solve their goalie problem. Speculation hasn’t explicitly been confirmed, but when enough insiders believe it to be accurate, there’s usually a solid kernel of truth. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford pushed for a first-round pick as the Penguins trade return for RFA goalie Matt Murray, as multiple pundits speculated, including Pierre LeBrun and Elliotte Friedman.

But there have been no takers.

Nearly four weeks after Rutherford pulled the trigger on his first offseason trade to acquire Kasperi Kapanen from Toronto for his first-round pick (15th overall), Murray hasn’t received any resolution, and the Penguins trade talk has seemingly stalled.

Since I wrote that, cue the trade in 3…2…1.

The Penguins and the rest of the NHL have until Oct. 7 to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents. In Murray’s case, the Penguins must offer him between $3.75 million and $4.5 million to keep his rights.

What if the Penguins offered Murray a qualifying offer, and he accepted?

If the Penguins don’t make the offer, they lose his rights and get nothing in return.

What can they do?

NHL Trade Market

Based on public reports, Edmonton reversed their course and decided to pursue a platoon situation with their current 1A goalie Mikko Koskinen. Calgary hasn’t yet done anything, nor have other potentials Buffalo, Ottawa, Carolina, or Minnesota.

And so, we wait. The 2020 NHL Draft is just five days away. The QO is due in six days. And, NHL free agency begins in eight days.

Sure, teams are waiting to see about the free-agent class. Who will Braden Holtby choose? Teams are waiting on big Vancouver Canucks netminder Jakob Markstrom, Chicago may cut bait with Corey Crawford, and playoff hero Anton Khudobin will be a UFA.

On the NHL trade front, there is Matt Murray. Marc-Andre Fleury now looms large on the market, and his $7 million salary for two more years is potentially painful but perfectly doable for any team which doesn’t want a long-term starter (ahem, Ottawa). And, Arizona has seemingly entered the race late with legitimate starting goalie Darcy Kuemper on the trade block.

National reports indicate they want two first-round draft picks for Kuemper. There’s also Frederick Anderson and Joonas Korpisalo on the NHL trade block.

The point is: There are too many goalies available for any sellers to capitalize on market value.

It’s gone from a flooded market to needing an arc. In this situation, if a buyer doesn’t like the price, there are half-a-dozen different options. Don’t like the price for Murray? Call Columbus and spend a first-rounder for Korpisalo. Or Kuemper. Chase Holtby or Markstrom on the UFA market.

Make no mistake, Murray’s .899 save percentage is a killer. The two Stanley Cup victories have seemingly become too small in the rearview mirror. Rutherford’s hopes to pull a rabbit out of his hat and replace the first-round pick he traded are fading. If it were on the table, one can logically assume the deal would be done.

It’s not like the Penguins have salary cap space to accept an NHL player in return. They don’t.

Package Murray and Johnson?

And so five hundred words of setup leading to this: Is Jim Rutherford’s best play on Matt Murray to get nothing in return. Yep, absolutely nothing but package a salary such as Jack Johnson at least recoup some financial savings.

This week, Detroit confirmed the market when they acquired faded defenseman Marc Staal and a second-round pick from the New York Rangers for future considerations. New York needed to dump Staal’s $5.7 million salary, and Detroit is rebuilding, so Detroit accepted the additional asset with the responsibility to pay Staal next season.

If Murray isn’t worth a first-round pick to the buyers, perhaps he is worth something akin to a second-round choice. By indirect math, Murray becomes the asset to take the contract.

PHN has defended Johnson from some of the more over the top, wild, and reflexive blame, which gushed his way. We’ve not done it for personal reasons but legitimacy reasons. However, newly acquired LD Mike Matheson needs that spot which Johnson has occupied.

In the future, the Penguins must play Johnson out of position, scratch him and his $3.25 million AAV, or trade him.

It’s probably a poorly kept secret that some in the Penguins hockey ops want to see more of Juuso Riikola, too. The Pittsburgh Penguins currently have five left-handed NHL defensemen, and three are vying for the third-pair left side.

That’s one more than needed.

And so keeping Johnson’s salary in the press box, or burying him in the minors (which would save $1.05 million against the cap but still count for $2.2 million), means the Penguins don’t have those resources to add help where needed, such as a right-side defenseman or third line help.

On a personal note, it would be nice to see Johnson play for a team without being blamed for literally everything. Pittsburgh fans have treated accused and convicted violent felons with more acceptance than Johnson. But I digress.

It’s been a long Penguins offseason, interrupted by a two-week training camp and a one week humbling by the Montreal Canadiens in the Qualifying Round. Otherwise, it’s been seven months since the NHL halted the regular season. The supply on the trade market isn’t shrinking. It’s growing, which means demand is decreasing.

With the draft now at hand, and the qualifying offer, is Jim Rutherford out of time to get an asset in return for Murray?

It sure seems that way.

We never bet against Rutherford, because about the time you place your bet, he pulls a rabbit out of the hat. See Marcus Pettersson for Daniel Sprong, and Jared McCann in the Derrick Brassard trade. But the COVID offseason isn’t typical, and Rutherford needs a partner.

Perhaps Buffalo, Ottawa, Detroit, or another team with cap space and goalie needs will take Murray and pay Johnson.

It may be the best Rutherford can do for the next Penguins trade.