The Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a mediocre start, which the fanbase has become accustomed to over the years. Their 2-2 record shouldn’t be the team’s biggest concern, as the spotlight is shining bright on their defense early on.
The injury bug has taken a bite out of the Penguins’ blue line with Michael Matheson, Marcus Petterson and Juuso Riikola all on the shelf. Head coach Mike Sullivan provided an update on Thursday regarding their return to and, from all accounts, we shouldn’t expect any of them back any time soon.
Injuries equal opportunity and this season is no different. The Penguins are expected to call Pierre-Olivier Joseph up from the taxi squad to give him a look, but this is a short-term solution for what looks like a long-term problem.
Expect a Trade from General Manager Jim Rutherford
Rutherford loves making early in-season trades as it gives him a chance to ‘set the market’ and, according to Darren Dreger of TSN, the Penguins have been discussing deals with several teams. Don’t expect a top-four or a big-name splash from Rutherford, but expect a trade to happen for a depth defenseman.
Here are three names the Penguins should target as they look to fill the holes on their blue line:
Travis Dermott, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Penguins and Maple Leafs have a history of making trades, and both teams have been pelted with injuries that could force them to pull the trigger. Dermott fits the Penguins’ style with his high-end speed and skill, and at 24 years old, and only making $874,125, he could make a lot of sense for Rutherford and company.
Dermott is caught in a numbers game in Toronto as the team has been playing with seven defensemen because they have so much depth. The Maple Leafs also have Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the outside looking in at the moment, and both former first-round picks are chomping at the bit to get in the lineup.
A deal for Dermott would likely be for a forward as the Maple Leafs are going to be without LW/C Joe Thornton for a few weeks who was injured in a game against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. Perhaps a deal centered around Penguins forward Teddy Blueger could interest both teams.
Nikita Zadorov, Chicago Blackhawks
Before the Colorado Avalanche traded the towering Zadorov to the Blackhawks, Rutherford was reportedly interested in acquiring the rugged defenseman. It turns out it could still happen.
Zadorov is known for being tough to play against and he loves to rough it up with the best of them. Quite frankly, the Penguins could use some of that on their ‘soft’ blue line. Kris Letang, John Marino, and Cody Ceci aren’t known for their aggressive play and Zadorov’s game would be a nice addition to that group. He’s logging over 20 minutes of ice time a night for the Blackhawks, who are in the middle of a rebuild.
Zadorov’s in the final year of his contract, which bodes well for the chances of this deal happening. Rutherford could throw in a trade-sweetener and have Chicago retain some of Zadorov’s $3.2 million cap hit. This would allow the Penguins to get a jump on the rental market and find themselves a capable defenseman who is battle-tested, capable of stepping into their lineup, and staying there when everyone gets healthy.
Jon Merrill, Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are not expected to win many games this season as the team continues along with their rebuild. The team has several pending free agents to make decisions on, including Merrill and fellow defenseman Marc Staal.
Merrill would be the cheaper option between the two, not only in cap hit but also in what the Penguins would have to give up in the trade. The 28-year-old Merrill is nothing fancy, but he’s efficient, playing almost 20-minutes a night for the Red Wings.
Merrill signed a one-year deal with Detroit after spending three seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights. He’s capable of making the first pass, responsible in his own end, and he’s been a plus-player the past three seasons. He would see significant minutes on the Penguins’ blue line initially, and then down the road, once everyone’s healthy, he could easily slip down to the bottom-pairing and provide the Penguins with the depth they so desperately need.
The Penguins are playing without half of their defensive core at the moment and the management team has no choice but to make a trade. With limited cap space and no 1st, 3rd, 4th, or 6th-round picks at the upcoming draft, Rutherford will need to get very creative to facilitate a deal. Buckle up, Penguins fans, a deal is on the way.