The Pittsburgh Penguins are out of sorts.
With a third of the 2017-18 season in the books, the back-to-back champs find themselves treading water, their uninspired play leading general manager Jim Rutherford to float the potential of a “major trade” before things go too far off the rails.
Some might argue Pittsburgh is already there, currently sitting outside the playoff picture after reigning as one of the East’s most dominant clubs for the past two seasons.
Pinpointing the Penguins’ issues so far isn’t too tough a task. After running through the league on the back of their indomitable forward depth, the black and gold find themselves far more limited in that regard this time around, having lost centres Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen to free agency over the summer.
Though the two pivots rarely stole the spotlight from their top-six counterparts, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they were crucial to Pittsburgh’s cause, allowing the club to roll out four lines that could all put points on the board. Bonino’s chemistry with Phil Kessel, specifically, was a game-changer for Pittsburgh, while Cullen quietly chipped in with two solid, 30-point seasons despite a very limited role.
Now without a third-line pivot able to bring that signature scoring depth, the team’s forward corps is once again too top-heavy, allowing the opposition to key in on Crosby and Malkin while the third and fourth trios fail to make much of an offensive dent.
Make no mistake—Rutherford is well aware of the issue, and inching ever closer to pulling the trigger on another mid-season change-up. The manager has been discussing the need to upgrade his centre depth since before the 2017-18 season began. One mild attempt came in the form of a trade for Riley Sheahan—who hasn’t yet filled Bonino’s skates on the third unit—while Rutherford also tried a much more ambitious swing for Matt Duchene before he landed in Ottawa.
With the clock ticking and the Penguins still lacking the lustre they’ve shown in recent years, let’s look at a few potential trading partners that might help them find a spark.
The Golden Knights find themselves in a precarious position heading towards the season’s halfway point: weighing the pros and cons of going for it all in year one or selling high after their historic start in order to continue building up their foundation of assets.
Where they land on that decision might impact the Penguins’ future, as a decision to sell might mean a few more available names for Pittsburgh. The two clubs have reportedly already had conversations regarding a potential deal. The Golden Knights were among three teams to reach out to the Penguins about veteran defenceman Ian Cole, according to beat writer Jason Mackey.
Cole remains the name most likely to get moved out of town, with both Mackey and fellow beat writer Josh Yohe suggesting the clash of personalities between Cole and head coach Mike Sullivan may have already gone past the point of no return.
The 28-year-old Cole might not be a numbers darling, but he proved his worth as a shutdown force during his club’s back-to-back Cup runs and could provide a boost for a team underperforming in its own end. However, given what he adds to Pittsburgh’s blue line, and his established chemistry with Justin Schultz, Rutherford won’t give Cole up easy.
If Vegas is still keen on the blueliner, Pittsburgh could look at Erik Haula or Cody Eakin, currently the Golden Knights’ second- and third-line pivots, to start a serious conversation. Either centre would be a slight upgrade over Sheahan for the third-line spot, and a slight upgrade might be all the Penguins need.
Dealing within the same conference likely isn’t something the Maple Leafs brass are too keen on doing, but there’s no denying that the framework for a potential Toronto-Pittsburgh deal is there.
The Leafs were another of the teams that inquired about Cole, according to Mackey, and there’s one name on their roster that could fill a number of Pittsburgh’s needs: Tyler Bozak.
The veteran pivot has been brought up by Pittsburgh media on more than one occasion as a player the Penguins brass hold in high regard. He would undoubtedly be an upgrade for the bottom six, and history would be a key factor here as well. Bozak has some well-established chemistry with Kessel from the duo’s time leading the Leafs offence, and bringing in the centre to man the third line could give Sullivan enough reason to move Kessel back to that unit, thereby balancing out the top nine once again.
The biggest hang-up here is how willing Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello is to potentially beef up one of the top teams in his own conference. However, Pittsburgh does have a few other names besides Cole to dangle in a potential package, perhaps sweetening the deal, including quick-footed winger Carl Hagelin.
The speedy Swede should appeal to plenty of clubs given the league’s continued trend towards top-end speed and skill. While he’s thrived in black and gold in the past, his recent cold streak could force Rutherford’s hand.
Perhaps there’s potential for a need-for-need swap here. Pittsburgh has defencemen and top-end offensive talent, but crave a depth centre. The Leafs have some marquee names in the middle, but might want to round out their defensive group.
Given everything that’s transpired in Ottawa over the past few weeks, a potential trade targets list that didn’t include the Senators would be no trade targets list at all.
The Penguins aren’t about to wade into the Erik Karlsson fray, but the recent flurry of controversy surrounding the Senators opens the door for other potential deals. First came mention of the Senators asking some of their veterans with relevant clauses to submit their trade lists to the team. As the situation in Ottawa has continued to spiral, reports now indicate that all options are on the table, including potentially “drastic changes” should the Senators slip further out of the playoff picture.
That said, one name that may be up for grabs is Derick Brassard, who carries a modified no-trade clause on his five-year, $25-million deal, per CapFriendly. It’s unclear where exactly Brassard stands with the Senators head office, as is the case with many of the team’s veterans, but with talk of significant changes potentially coming, the right offer might shake him loose.
For Pittsburgh, that would be a no-brainer. Brassard is a clear upgrade over anyone else in Pittsburgh’s bottom six at the moment, boasting a 60-point effort and a more recent 27-goal campaign on his resumé. Fitting his hefty contract into the mix would be an issue, but don’t forget the Penguins were fully prepared to swing a deal for Duchene and his $6-million cap hit. The Penguins would likely prefer a cheaper option, but it appears they’re willing to make room if the right name is there.
That said, if Brassard isn’t available, Ottawa has another decent (and much cheaper) option in third-line pivot Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Though not as proven a commodity, Pageau has enough foot-speed and offensive awareness to hang with the Penguins top nine.
With the Senators currently allowing the seventh-most goals-against per game in the league, the club may be interested in bringing aboard some defensive help to make up for the loss of former top-pairing mainstay Marc Methot. Cole, or perhaps young Olli Maatta, may be able to fill that need.
The other team mentioned by Mackey among the three interested in Cole was the Colorado Avalanche.
There’s no clear option for a potential returning piece from Colorado, as the Avalanche surely aren’t parting with any of their talented, young pivots. But there is one interesting option in Carl Soderberg.
The 32-year-old Swede certainly has some miles on him, but he’s in the midst of a decent comeback effort in Denver, with 13 points through 29 games this season. Last year was an abysmal one for Soderberg, but then again, there wasn’t much about the 2016-17 Avalanche that wasn’t abysmal.
One year prior, Soderberg looked like a home run for Colorado, debuting with a 51-point effort. He has two more years left on a pretty hefty contract (paying him $4.75 million annually), so fitting in his salary might not be an easy feat (or worth it). However, as in the case of Brassard, if Rutherford feels Soderberg could help his third line, it seems he’ll be willing to make it work.
Contract aside, the former Boston Bruin has all the makings of a Rutherford acquisition. The Penguins tend to gravitate towards players with high-end offensive skill, even when it’s mired in a questionable all-around skill set (as was the case with Schultz when he first joined the club). Soderberg fits that bill, as he’s flashed some playmaking wizardry on more than one occasion during his four NHL seasons. He’s been inconsistent, but that tends not to be as significant an issue when you have elite linemates to work with on a nightly basis.
There’s a bit of Bonino in Soderberg’s game, and if the Avalanche decide to offload the veteran and bring in some Stanley Cup pedigree in Cole, there might be something here.
It might be the most unlikely of any of these scenarios, but there’s a chance Pittsburgh tries for a do-over and brings back veteran Matt Cullen.
After signing with his hometown team in the off-season, presumably to finish his career back in Minnesota, the 41-year-old has had a fairly tumultuous return to his old stomping grounds. A few consecutive healthy scratches with the Wild sparked questions of whether Cullen and Rutherford would ever consider a Steel City reunion.
Those around the team feel there’s a real chance Pittsburgh looks into bringing the veteran back if the Wild’s struggles continue. For his part, he’s not making that possibility look more likely, as the longtime NHLer has clawed his way back into the lineup and managed to put a couple points on the board as of late.
That said, the discrepancy in how each of these two teams values Cullen could make this interesting. Cullen has been the odd man out in Minnesota at times this season, suggesting he isn’t too high up on his coaching staff’s list of favourites.
On the other hand, there’s no questions regarding how Pittsburgh feels about him. Rutherford made a point to bring Cullen to Pennsylvania in 2015, hoping to add a reliable veteran voice in the Penguins locker room and touting the pivot’s impact during a run to the 2006 Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. The centreman quietly became a crucially important cog in the Penguins’ machine, adding two more Cups to his collection while helping mentor the club’s emerging young stars.
The Penguins were ready to bring him back for a chance at the three-peat, and it seems that interest hasn’t faded. Given that it would likely take very little to re-acquire Cullen—and to fit his $1-million contract into the salary cap picture—there’s a good chance the Penguins take a long look at this one.