The Pittsburgh Penguins have long been one of the NHL’s most active teams at the trade deadline. This season should be no different, as the Penguins are in the thick of another wild race for the Metropolitan Division title. Ultimately, however, there is only goal: to win the Stanley Cup.
Their 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champion teams, had one simple formula: overwhelming speed and skill up front, athleticism and depth on the back end and unquestionable stability in net. This season, the Penguins lack one of those three key ingredients: depth on defense.
The Penguins’ Defensive Dilemma
After a 3-0 loss on Jan. 21, Pittsburgh had 67 points at the All-Star break, just four behind the Washington Capitals. They have been brutally ravaged by injuries to key players, including Jake Guentzel, Dominik Kahun, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz, among others, (from ‘Taking stock of Penguins’ health, goaltending and trade mentality at break,’ Trib Live, 01/23/2020). While the team needs a left winger, particularly a right-handed player who can work the left wall, shoring up the back end is far more important to the Penguins’ next title run.
The Penguins’ current defensive pairings (in order) are as follows: Jack Johnson and Kris Letang, Marcus Pettersson and John Marino, Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel.
Marino is one of the league’s best stories of the season. He has been the Pens’ best defenseman not named Letang. However, for most of the season, he has played alongside left-handed defenseman (LHD) Pettersson, a pairing that has been mostly average.
In terms of chemistry, Johnson and Letang aren’t an ideal duo either, but Pittsburgh’s top pair has been solid this season. The Marino-Pettersson tandem is the team’s second pairing. The third, Riikola and Ruhwedel, has been a weakness. Even with Schultz set to return soon after the All-Star break, his health can no longer be counted on. Schultz has played just 56 games in the past two seasons combined.
To the team’s benefit, they don’t need a top-pairing defenseman, but instead need a healthy and stable d-core with a slightly improved level of play, particularly on the left side.
Two Familiar Faces
Two of the team’s best possible trade targets also happen to be former Penguins, and helped the team win its two most recent titles. Remember Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey?
Daley is suffering through a historic season with the Detroit Red Wings, who have a 12-35-4 record with just 31 games remaining. They will finish as the worst NHL team in recent memory. Daley signed a three-year contract with Detroit in 2017 and is set to be a free agent after this season.
Despite his age, 36, Daley’s salary is $3.166 million, and he would instantly fit in the Penguins’ locker room. He solidified the defense in both 2016 and 2017, resulting in championships.
Hainsey is a 38-year-old journeyman with leadership qualities that are being wasted on an Ottawa Senators team that is headed nowhere fast. Like Daley, Hainsey is another veteran who helped Pittsburgh raise the Stanley Cup. In what could be the final season of his career, Hainsey is likely looking for one last run at a championship. The Penguins can give him that.
Gustafsson Leads Other Potential Options
Another positive for Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is the abundance of LHD on the market. Alec Martinez, Brenden Dillon, Andy Greene, Mark Borowiecki, Erik Gustafsson all come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens could opt to move LHD Marco Scandella if they fall further out of the playoff picture, even though they just acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres about a month ago.
Gustafsson is exactly what the Penguins need. First, he isn’t a massive presence prone to be outworked by fast opposing forwards. At just 6-foot, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Gustafsson is capable of skating with any offensive player. He is also a capable scorer, tallying 17 goals and 60 points last season. Pittsburgh should add another balanced defender with a well-rounded skill set, as opposed to a bruising physical plodder.
Rutherford will make at least one move before the Feb. 24 NHL Trade Deadline. While a winger wouldn’t be a silly addition, a defenseman is much more important for the Penguins to win three Stanley Cups in five years.