A small Pittsburgh Penguins trade could change how we view the team. General manager Ron Hextall has already stated the team wants to add not just size but a bit of malicious intent for the 2021-22 NHL season. The Penguins had no problems outskating their past and future Metro Division rivals to win the East Division, but they came up small near the blue paint.
In the offensive and defensive crease, the New York Islanders won more battles. If there was a second reason the Penguins lost in Round One to New York, the net-front battles are firmly ensconced as it.
So, how will the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hextall fix the issue on the blue line?
They have only one free agent to sign or lose: Cody Ceci.
As an aside, we’ll be diving into Ceci, who was an integral part of the Penguins blue line corps and played some of the best hockey of his career this season. But if the Penguins sign the impending free agent, he would force a decision between himself and Mike Matheson regarding who is protected and not protected for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Perhaps the Penguins can play the long game and sign Ceci just after the Expansion Draft on July 21, but before free agency on July 28.
Pittsburgh Penguins Internal Addition
So, where would the Penguins add size, snarl, and physicality on their blue line?
One real possibility is to let Ceci walk, move John Marino to the second pair and a Penguins trade or UFA signing fills the third pairing RD spot.
Marino, 24, isn’t a small player. At 6-foot-3, somewhere around 185 pounds, he is the most likely candidate to add physical net-front layers to his game.
Marino had only 48 hits in 52 games, down from 72 hits in 56 games in his rookie year. Though Marino also chopped his turnover rate in half, which points toward a more conservative game. Based on the progression from his rookie season through his second year, we should see more growth in year 3.
It was about the same age and point in his NHL career that Brian Dumoulin did so. If Marino needs to gain a few pounds, the Penguins have my number. I’ve become quite good at that.
By moving Marino up one slot, that opens a right-handed spot for one big target.
Pittsburgh Penguins Trade Fit:
The Buffalo Sabres have an RHD who is reportedly drawing interest on the NHL trade market. Rasmus Ristolainen was stiff against the Penguins this season and certainly impressed this writer. When interim head coach Don Granato turned the Sabres loose, they were a much different team and competitive.
Ristolainen was heavy on the Penguins forwards, especially Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Ristolainen had 193 hits in just 49 games this season. And there is little doubt a few of those hurt. He dished 12 hits over two games against the Penguins on March 11 and 13 and 11 hits over a two-game set on April 17 and 18.
There is a downside to Ristolainen. Despite scoring 26 even-strength points (4-22-26 at 5v5), he was a minus-41 in 2018-19.
But he clearly was not that defenseman this season. The Penguins organization also spends extra effort to resurrect or keep defensemen on the right path. Assistant coach Todd Reirden was well credited by Kris Letang this season. Before Reirden, Sergei Gonchar was the assistant coach widely credited with being a defenseman whisperer.
Can the Penguins afford Ristolainen? Well, maybe. How badly do they want it?
There aren’t many comparable deals from which to draw market value. The Boston Bruins acquired Mike Reilly at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline for a third-round pick.
Tampa Bay acquired David Savard for a first and third-round pick.
Of course, that was with the salary cap space Tampa Bay didn’t have to use because Nikita Kucherov “wasn’t ready.”
Buffalo traded Brandon Montour to Florida for a third-round pick.
Ristolainen should command a bit more than Reilly and Montour. If Buffalo’s rookie GM Kevyn Adams has learned how to generate interest in his players, a second-round pick, plus more, seems like a good get. Perhaps a team could get away with a solid prospect.
Next season is the final year of Ristolainen’s six-year contract with a $5.4 million AAV. The New Jersey Devils are reportedly interested. Generally, the trade market for a 26-year-old physical defenseman with some puck skills is well more than a third-round pick. Expect Buffalo to get at least a pair of second-round picks, if not a solid prospect in place of one of those picks.
The Penguins trade chips do include a second-round pick.
Ristolainen wouldn’t mind getting out of Buffalo, either.
“The way the younger guys played this year toward the end of the year gives you confidence about the future, but for me, I can’t do another rebuild or wait multiple years. For me, we have to get to the playoffs next year,” Ristolainen said. “It’s either here or hopefully then somewhere else.”
Well, there is a team that specializes in making the playoffs.
Of course, the Penguins may need help to clear $5.4 million salary-cap space, but perhaps the Seattle Kraken will help with that, too.
Or perhaps Buffalo wants NHL players.
Who knows, someone named Jim Rutherford, who should be very familiar with the Penguins roster, might have a hand on the Buffalo Sabres’ organization by then, too.