Penguins Have Better Options on Defense Than Ristolainen

Pittsburgh Penguins management would love to make a series of moves this offseason, but they may not have the financial resources to do so. General manager Ron Hextall will have to be creative with a couple of trades if he wants to free up some cap space. Reports suggest the team is looking for a physical defenseman, and according to Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s Dan Kingerski, Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres is a possible trade target.

The 26-year-old two-way defenseman has one season left on his contract, worth $5.4 million. He recorded 18 points in 49 games on a struggling Sabres squad this season, and he has shown that he’s capable of putting up 40-point seasons and can play a mean and nasty game when needed.

Rasmus Ristolainen Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Ristolainen is the type of defenseman the Penguins could use (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

We’ve seen with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jake Muzzin and the Vegas Golden Knights with Alec Martinez, that the price is high for a defenseman who has one season remaining on his contract. Both of those trades included first or two second-round draft picks. Considering the Penguins don’t have much in their prospect cupboard, this deal seems very unlikely.

Makes Sense the Penguins Have Some Interest in Ristolainen

Hextall has made it known that the Penguins want to be tougher to play against, and Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel know Ristolainen well. He often gets the tough assignments, and Pittsburgh is no different. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound defender loves to slash and get in his shots before and after the whistle, and last season, Ristolainen ranked fourth in the NHL with 193 hits. He’s not afraid to use his towering frame, and the opposition is well aware. 

Latest Penguins Content:

His style of play would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh, but his salary will make a deal with the Sabres difficult for Hextall to pull off. Also, with Kris Letang and John Marino slated for the top-two spots on the right side next season, adding another right-handed defenseman may not be a good idea.

Penguins Have Cheaper Options to Add Defensive Toughness

While Ristolainen’s name may have surfaced this week as a trade target, the team does have cheaper options. With limited-to-no cap space for next season and one draft pick in the first four rounds of the 2021 NHL Draft, the Penguins will need to find value on the free-agent market. Here are a couple of names who could add some “nasty” to the blue line:

Travis Hamonic

The 30-year-old defenseman is an unrestricted free agent and is open to leaving western Canada. Hamonic has an in-your-face style and loves to throw big open ice hits and block as many shots as possible. He’s fearless, unlike some of the current Penguins’ players.

Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders, NHL, Calgary Flames
Travis Hamonic’s best years came as a New York Islander. (Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, Hamonic finished with three goals and 10 points, and he has shown in the past that he can produce offensively. He also has seasons of 200 hits and over 100 shots under his belt. Few NHL defensemen can say they finished a season with over 200 hits, 130 blocks, and 130 shots. Last offseason, the former second-round pick signed with the Vancouver Canucks for $1.25 million, which is the type of salary the Penguins could find a way to squeeze in, as opposed to Ristolainen’s $5.4 million.

Jani Hakanpaa

Hakanpaa is a force on the ice and loves to use his body. The Carolina Hurricanes picked up the 29-year-old rugged defender via a trade with the Anaheim Ducks to add some toughness for the playoffs. With a salary worth $750,000 this season, Hakanpaa is due for a raise, but the Penguins could still find a way to fit him in if he’s due roughly $2 million per season on his next contract.

Jani Hakanpaa Carolina Hurricanes
Jani Hakanpaa is very underrated and very tough to play against (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

At 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, he fits the physical bill the Penguins are looking for. Hakanpaa finished the season ranked 3rd in the NHL with 215 hits and was the only one in the top-five with more than 80 blocks. He loves mixing it up and lets his play do the talking. Despite being physical and involved in the game, he only had 35 penalty minutes. Controlling your temper when you are constantly being harassed by the other team is a lost skill.

The Penguins are going to do whatever they can to add size and toughness next season. While some names are starting to surface, it’s going to come down to cap space and the asking price from other teams. Hextall may not have enough flexibility to fit in Ristolainen under the cap next season, but these cheaper options can bring some nasty to the Penguins lineup in 2021-22.