Arguably the most exciting time of the season, the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline is right around the corner. At any minute, any team could make a franchise-altering decision. As far as whether or not they will be buyers or sellers before the Feb. 25 deadline, I believe the Pittsburgh Penguins have to be buyers if they want to compete with the other powerhouses in the Eastern Conference. After back-to-back wins, the Penguins have slotted themselves nicely into third place in the Metropolitan Division, but they are also only three points away from once again being on the outside looking in.
The Penguins’ starting lineup already looks drastically different from the start of the season as general manager Jim Rutherford hasn’t been shy about making trades. Tanner Pearson, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann and Marcus Pettersson are all players who started the season wearing a different uniform and each one has made a significant impact for the Penguins. With the emergence of Teddy Blueger, the Penguins roster may appear crowded, but that doesn’t mean Rutherford will abstain from making a major deadline deal.
With the Penguins needing to keep pace with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins – who recently traded for forward Charlie Coyle – here are three players the Penguins should target by the Feb. 25 deadline.
Mats Zuccarello, Right Wing, New York Rangers
There’s no doubt the New York Rangers are one of the teams that will be looking to sell by the trade deadline. At 31 years old, Mats Zuccarello is an interesting fit as a rental for the Penguins. In a 5-4 loss to the Penguins on Feb. 17, Zuccarello scored twice and was by far the most noticeable player for the Rangers. Currently fourth on the team in scoring, he has magnificent vision and speed and could be a staple that rounds out the Penguins’ top-six as they chase their third Stanley Cup in four seasons.
Considering he will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the Penguins shouldn’t have to give up much to get him as he is unlikely to re-sign in New York this upcoming offseason if he were to stay put. With plenty of trade assets at their disposal, the Penguins would likely only need to part ways with a second or third-round draft pick and a middle-tier prospect or two in order to get Zuccarello.
The Rangers may be hesitant to trade him to a division rival, but with a slim chance at the playoffs this season, it would be wise for them to move him to whoever gives them the best offer. The Penguins are already deep up front, but if they want to stack up with the best teams in the NHL come playoff time, they will need to add at least one more forward who can consistently contribute offensively.
Nick Jensen, Defenseman, Detroit Red Wings
While the Penguins would certainly benefit from adding more scoring depth, it should not be their first priority. The Penguins desperately need to add a right-handed defenseman to complement Kris Letang and Justin Schultz in order to round out their defense corps.
Head coach Mike Sullivan has recently opted to play Chad Ruhwedel (the only other right-handed defenseman on the roster) over left-handed Juuso Riikola, and the dividends have paid off. The Penguins have been able to stretch the ice better in both ends, and Ruhwedel even scored the game-winning goal on Feb. 19 against the New Jersey Devils.
Truth is that Nick Jensen brings a lot more to the lineup than Ruhwedel. At a financially friendly $812,500 cap hit, the 28-year-old playmaker would have no problem fitting into the Penguins’ third defensive pairing. With 15 points in 59 games this season, Jensen is currently enjoying the best offensive season of his career and has even managed a plus-one rating on an abysmal Detroit Red Wings team.
Currently sitting in the basement of the Eastern Conference, the Red Wings need to try and acquire as many draft picks and young prospects as they can in order to successfully rebuild. Jensen is unlikely to be one of the pieces they would choose to build the franchise around, so the Penguins could likely get him for a hefty discount.
Adam McQuaid, Defenseman, New York Rangers
Zuccarello isn’t the only player on the Rangers that the Penguins should target. If they are unable to get Jensen from the Red Wings, Adam McQuaid is another right-handed defenseman who would be a great fit in Pittsburgh. At 6-foot-4, McQuaid is a bruising player who brings a lot of experience to a defense corps that has consistently collapsed in front of goaltender Matt Murray. McQuaid could also be brought in as an insurance policy to protect Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the postseason.
While Jensen is an offensive upgrade to Ruhwedel, McQuaid would be a defensive upgrade to the third pairing. In 34 games with the Rangers this season, he has a plus-three rating and 31 penalty minutes. With 15 career goals, he isn’t completely inept offensively and would be a huge upgrade to the Penguins, who have given up 3.08 goals per-game.
As long as the Penguins are buying at the deadline, fans should instill their trust to Rutherford, who has made many significant moves that have led to championships. While their first priority should be adding a right-handed defenseman, a scoring winger would also be a nice addition to a team that is all in on winning now.