At 2:11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 17, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced their most-recent trade: a one-for-one move sending fourth-line call-up Derek Grant to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Joseph Blandisi, who played a similar role with the Western Conference club.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has been known throughout the league in his quarter of a century at the helm of the Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Hartford Whalers franchises as someone who is unafraid to make big deals and, to paraphrase the late Herb Brooks, look for the right players, not the best ones. Rutherford’s strategy in 2018-19 seems to be no different.
Blandisi is ready to jump right in 🐧 pic.twitter.com/HTXuK1ruWg
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 19, 2019
This season has included a series of subtle trades for the Penguins and has churned the rumor mill with implications of a blockbuster move that could be made before the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
Derek Grant for Joseph Blandisi
Rutherford has been all about the one-for-one trades with California teams this season, the latest being the early-morning deal with Anaheim for Blandisi. Signed through the end of the season and due to be a restricted free agent this summer with $680,000 cap hit, the 24-year-old Blandisi was never meant to be a Penguins mainstay, nor was he acquired for his high goal-scoring ability or superb playmaking skills.
The former OHL Third-Team All-Star was selected 162nd overall by the Colorado Avalanche at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, which was held in Pittsburgh. Unbeknownst to him, Blandisi would reunite with three members of his draft class by joining the Penguins: defenseman Olli Maatta, forward Tanner Pearson and goaltender Matt Murray were also drafted that year.
Blandisi made his NHL debut in 2015-16 with the New Jersey Devils and played half a season with the club, racking up five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. He was traded to the Ducks last season, along with Adam Henrique, for defenseman Sami Vatanen.
After playing one game with the Penguins, a 3-2 overtime victory on Jan. 18 against the Arizona Coyotes, Blandisi was reassigned to the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. No stranger to the AHL, Blandisi has played for the Albany Devils, San Diego Gulls and Binghamton Rangers. While with Albany, he played in the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic.
This acquisition seems to be just another drop in the bucket for the Penguins, especially with such a quick reassignment to the minors. While it’s never a bad idea to build a depth-filled AHL team with players who can easily slot into the NHL lineup in the unfortunate case of a mainstay’s short or long-term injury, a one-for-one deal of comparable players can become a trade for trade’s sake with no real substance behind it unless it’s a stepping stone to something bigger down the pike.
Daniel Sprong for Marcus Pettersson
Rutherford’s first one-for-one deal with Anaheim this season occurred in December when he sent right winger Daniel Sprong to the Ducks for defenseman Marcus Pettersson, and the Penguins fanbase lost their minds.
Penguins fans were angry with Rutherford for giving up talented winger Sprong, feeling that he hadn’t been performing because he hadn’t been given enough chances to grow with the club. Truthfully, the Penguins have enough talent on their wings without Sprong, and though he might be an up-and-coming player – he currently has 11 points n 20 games with Anaheim compared to four points in 16 games with the Penguins this season – he might not have been the right fit for the black and gold.
Pettersson, though not a household name like Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, has put forth a solid effort the last month and has become a permanent fixture for the defense and leaving Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak to fight for the rotating sixth slot. The magnitude of trades like these can go undetected and seem frivolous during the regular season, but can show real payoff in the playoffs. Time will tell if the Sprong-Pettersson trade was a boom or a bust for the Penguins.
Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson
The Carl Hagelin-Tanner Pearson trade was Rutherford’s most-discussed trade of the season so far, even surpassing the Sprong debacle. The speedy Hagelin was a prominent contributor on the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup teams in 2016 and 2017, but after one-and-a-quarter slow, injury-plagued seasons, Rutherford sent him to the Los Angeles Kings for left wing Pearson.
While Hagelin’s performance has remained steady with the Kings – he has three points in 12 games with Los Angeles and had three points in 16 games with the Penguins this season – Pearson has improved with the move east, nabbing 13 points in 32 games in Pittsburgh versus one point in 17 games with the Kings this season.
Even more than the Sprong-Pettersson trade, this deal could have major benefits during the playoffs. Reminiscent of the 2009 trade of Ryan Whitney to the Ducks for Chris Kunitz, Pearson’s former playoff experience and newfound motivation with the Penguins could prove beneficial this postseason. Not all playoff heroes have to be faces of the franchise. Just ask Max Talbot.
Related: Pearson Producing for Penguins
Will Derrick Brassard Be Rutherford’s Next Move?
Always one to cut to the truth, Rutherford has stated that the latest Grant-Blandisi trade has no effect on the club’s decision to keep or move Derrick Brassard before the trade deadline. Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Jonathan Bombulie:
“We are assessing our team all the time. What we do now when we’re looking at our team, it’s not game by game here. It’s where this team is going to be to be able to compete in June. That’s what we look at on a regular basis. I don’t just want to pinpoint it down to one guy,” (from ‘For Penguins, trading Derek Grant opens door for many others’ – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – 1/17/19).
That “one guy” who is grabbing the attention of the media is, of course, Brassard. Rumors have circulated that the Penguins are in talks with the Columbus Blue Jackets to move Brassard before the deadline. The Blue Jackets drafted Brassard sixth overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and he played 309 games with the club over six seasons. While Rutherford has insisted that bringing on Blandisi has nothing to do with Brassard, that’s not to say they couldn’t or wouldn’t be linked in another way in the future.
Compared to past seasons, Rutherford has stayed fairly quiet in the trading game so far by making smaller moves. However, it’s only a matter of time before he pulls a blockbuster deal out of his hat, one that will no doubt involve Brassard in some way. But with Brassard as the main focus of the trade, who’s to say that Blandisi wouldn’t be tacked on as an extra piece or an incentive to secure a more prominent player, not just from the Blue Jackets, but from any team in the league.
With a little over a month left until the trade deadline, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rutherford turn a few more tricks or make a few more transactions to set the Penguins up for the stretch run and the postseason.