Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall has his hands full this summer. There’s an era of Penguins hockey hanging in the balance this offseason as both Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are heading for free agency on July 13. The players have been saying all the right things and the management group has said all the right things, so now the fanbase is sitting on their hands waiting for contract extensions to be signed. So far, it’s been crickets and perhaps Hextall is trying to create ways to free up some more cap space to have all the major players back in the fold for next season.
The Penguins have $23 million in cap space at the moment, however, with the major talent left to sign, it’s frankly not enough. Not only are Letang and Malkin unsigned, but so too are Evan Rodrigues and Rickard Rakell. Finally, the team also needs to find some goaltending depth behind Tristan Jarry. Hextall should try to create some more financial flexibility and keep the core of the Penguins together. Seeing Letang and Malkin in other jerseys not only wouldn’t look right, but it also shouldn’t be happening as everyone in hockey needs to see them retire in Pittsburgh. Trading either of these two players is one way to keep the core of the team together:
One player who is a prime trade candidate for Hextall is veteran winger Jason Zucker. The 30-year-old is about to enter the final season of his contract, paying him $5.5 million and considering the production the Penguins have seen since he arrived in a big trade with the Minnesota Wild, would they really miss him?
Zucker has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t been able to stay on the ice for head coach Mike Sullivan. In 2021-22 he appeared in only 41 games, recording a dismal 17 points. This coming after a season where the winger only played in 38 games and produced 18 points. The money compared to the production is not adding up and it’s time for Hextall to move on.
Even with the injury history, there should be a small market for a Zucker trade. An expiring contract sometimes is much easier to move as teams may not want to commit long-term to a veteran who is making over $5 million and not producing to his potential. Zucker does hold no-trade protection as he submits a list of 10 teams he’d like to avoid. One team to watch is the Los Angeles Kings, as he is a California native, so we know the Kings are somewhere he’d likely want to play. They are also a team who is on the cusp of contention and aren’t rebuilding like say, the San Jose Sharks who would have no interest in acquiring a reasonably expensive winger. As a result, a Kings and Penguins trade is certainly emerging as something to watch early on this summer.
One of the biggest reasons Marcus Pettersson is listed here is the fact that Michael Matheson came on strong last season and cemented himself as a top-four defenseman in Pittsburgh. With Matheson’s production, contract, and no-trade protection, the 26-year-old Pettersson should be the one shipped out of town should Hextall need more financial resources at his disposal.
This shouldn’t be considered a salary dump per se, as Pettersson is still on the younger side. He’s also signed long-term at just over $4 million and all of his 19 points last season came at even strength, so there’s still some untapped potential another team could easily tap into. A bigger role on a lesser team could be the perfect recipe for the 6-foot-3 defenseman to blossom his career to the next level.
Hextall should look to move Pettersson for a cheaper young forward who is versatile enough to play down the middle and on the wing. The Penguins don’t have a ton of center depth and considering the age of some of the players up front, it would be wise to create some more depth with young talent.
Money talks and in the NHL a hard salary cap can keep executives up at night. Hextall has a ton of pressure on him right now in Pittsburgh as Letang and Malkin need to be brought back and finish their careers as Penguins and Penguins only. One of Zucker or Pettersson being moved is a way to create more salary-cap flexibility and losing either player won’t hurt the hockey club as much as seeing ‘Tanger’ or ‘Geno’ in another sweater come opening night next season. The core needs to remain together, so Hextall needs to step up and close the deals to keep the Malkin, Letang, Sidney Crosby-era going.
Shane covers any and everything to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor to the THW family, his passion and unique perspective on the game results in some diverse content. Certainly versatile, you can also find him contributing at NHLTradeRumors.me, BaseballRumors.me & BBallRumors.com. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween