When Penguins GM Jim Rutherford talks about potential changes coming, you have to be on the lookout for a trade. He usually follows through.
Last week Rutherford aired his frustration around the Penguins, who had lost five games in a row at the time. They answered with a shutout win over Arizona on Saturday, but dropped a 4-2 decision to New Jersey Tuesday night (their second loss to the Devils in a week) which was enough to set the GM in motion.
On Wednesday morning the Penguins announced Rutherford signed a contract extension through 2021-22 and when he met the media to discuss it, Rutherford dropped the news that a trade would be happening in short order. Less than an hour later he was back in front of the media talking about dealing Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for Tanner Pearson.
Thanks for the memories pic.twitter.com/n5B9CnLg6e
— LA Kings (@LAKings) November 14, 2018
“We needed to make some changes,” Rutherford said. “This could be the start of more changes or we’ll see how this goes here for a little bit. But the way things have gone here in the first part of the season it’s obvious we had to change something up.
“I feel bad. Carl Hagelin is a very popular guy and I like him a lot personally and he was a part of winning the Stanley Cup, but at the same time we’re not tracking towards winning a Stanley Cup right now and changes are necessary.”
It’s not a blockbuster, but it is a deal that provides both the Penguins and Kings an element they need right now. Here is a look at what each team gets out of the one-for-one trade.
Pearson is making $3.75 million against the cap and Hagelin makes $4 million, but as part of the trade the Penguins agreed to retain $250,000 of Hagelin’s salary so both teams end up with the same cap commitment they already had.
There is a difference in the years ahead, though.
Hagelin, 30, is slated for unrestricted free agency this summer, while the 26-year-old Pearson is signed through 2020-21. Hagelin may not have taken a pay cut to stay, so the Penguins move ahead with one less contract to deal this summer and more roster security. Only Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen, Garrett Wilson, Chad Ruhwedel and Casey DeSmith remain as pending UFAs, while Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese and Juuso Riikola are RFAs.
The Kings’ biggest UFA was 36-year-old goalie Peter Budaj, but Alex Iafallo, Adrian Kempe and Michael Amadio are RFAs. The toughest challenge right now for GM Rob Blake if the Kings continue to underperform is getting out from under some of their bigger contracts to try and move in a different direction. Most are either too big (Dustin Brown’s $5.875 million AAV) or the player is too valuable (Anze Kopitar at $10 million AAV) to trade away, so this deal does provide the potential for $3.75 million in extra space this summer that wouldn’t have been there before.
KINGS GET: CARL HAGELIN
If you’ve seen any Kings games this season, and especially against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night when they were outshot 35-23, you know Los Angeles is too slow for the 2018-19 NHL. They’re built for a style of game that was better off a few years ago, back when the Kings were winning Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014.
Hagelin will help remedy that.
“Our team is obviously not in a position that we are comfortable with in terms of how we are playing,” Blake said. “This is a change to our line-up that gives us an additional amount of speed. With Carl Hagelin, his number one asset is speed and getting to holes, and we think he will play a big role on the penalty kill for us going forward.”
As a rookie in 2012 Hagelin won the Fastest Skater Competition at the NHL All-Star Game and it remains the most notable and valuable skill in his bag. But on top of that, as Blake noted, Hagelin has been a key penalty killer for the Penguins (only Riley Sheahan had more shorthanded time this season). He should certainly help the Kings’ poor PK, which was dominated by the Leafs on Tuesday and ranks 21st in the league overall with a 78.4 per-cent kill rate.
But as much as they need speed and PK help, you could easily argue Los Angeles’ biggest need is on offence. Currently ranked dead last in the league with an average of two goals per game, the Kings need guys who can put the puck in the net and Hagelin didn’t score more than 10 in either of the past two seasons. Granted, Pearson hasn’t scored a goal yet this season, but he’s at least hit the 40-point mark two years in a row, while Hagelin hasn’t gotten there once in his career. Pearson is also just two years removed from scoring 24 goals.
PENGUINS GET: TANNER PEARSON
Twice passed over in his draft year, Pearson finally made it as a first-round pick (30th overall) in 2012 following a 91-point season for the OHL’s Barrie Colts.
He’s not a huge goal scorer or a line-driver, but he is the perfect candidate to ride shotgun with one of Pittsburgh’s elite centres and put up good point totals. He did it in Los Angeles three years in a row: going from 36 to 44 to 40 points and 15 to 24 to 15 goals from 2015-16 to 2017-18.
Pearson was mostly part of Los Angeles’ ‘That ’70s Line’ with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli, but also saw roughly 13 per cent of his even-strength minutes last season with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, per Frozen Pool. He had been put in prime positions again this season, but with zero goals and only one assist in 17 games, he was being moved out of the top six lately.
Hagelin was already playing on Evgeni Malkin’s left side, so it makes sense for Pearson to slide right in there and be in a position to succeed right away. In Pittsburgh’s top six, Pearson would be a great candidate to bounce back to somewhere between a 15- or 20-goal pace. And when Rutherford sounded off on his team last week, the lack of support scoring from those outside of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel was his biggest issue.
“He’s off to a slow start this year,” Rutherford said of Pearson. “He kinda maybe lost his confidence a little bit in the early-going, but he’s had a good career. He’s able to play with top guys. He’s done it in L.A.”
Pearson could also get a look on the second power-play unit for the Penguins, which is lacking compared to the top unit that is stacked with Pittsburgh’s best weapons. He will not be a factor on the penalty kill, though, so the Penguins lose a little something there. Look for Bryan Rust to get a little more time — or Aston-Reese could get squeezed into the lineup and earn some of those minutes, especially if the team continues to be frustrated with Daniel Sprong on the fourth line.