As the Penguins were putting the finishing touches on a tidy 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets Saturday afternoon at Consol Energy center, their GM was busy finalizing a deal that brought once highly touted defenseman Justin Schultz to the steel city.
In return the Edmonton Oilers received the Pens’ 2016 third-round draft selection.
This trade leaves the Penguins in a very good position heading into Monday’s 3pm trade deadline.
Jim Rutherford was able to address his most pressing need – defensive depth – without significantly compromising any of the organization’s future. An obvious departure from years past.
The Penguins also recalled goalie Matt Murray from Wilkes Barre/Scranton on Saturday, putting backup netminder Jeff Zatkoff squarely on the trade block (as of this writing Zatkoff has not yet been dealt).
Dealing From a Position of Strength
With the Murray recall, this leaves the Penguins with three goalies on the NHL roster. Despite some bad luck with goalie injuries in the past (see Rutherford’s time with the ‘Canes), Pittsburgh is unlikely to carry all three backstops through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Which makes Zatkoff the obvious option to be dealt.
It’s doubtful that Zatkoff fetches a return of anything more than a later-round draft pick, but if he can be dealt significantly earlier than 3pm on deadline day that draft pick could be flipped in another deal.
For once, the Penguins also seem to have good depth in their bottom-six forward group. Guys like Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary, Scott Wilson, and Tom Kuhnhackl have all proven their worth at the NHL level in the past few weeks. Add to that the (eventual) returns of Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Beau Bennett, not to mention Oskar Sundqvist whom the Pens just reassigned to the AHL.
Now all of a sudden you have what many consider to be a good problem. Too many players, not enough places to put them.
The Wilkes Barre/Scranton guys are all on very team-friendly contracts in terms of dollars. Bonino is signed through next season, Fehr has two years remaining on his deal, and Bennett will be an unrestricted free agent at this season’s end.
Bottom line: come this summer the Penguins will have some decisions to make regarding this group. A trade would seem likely with at least one of the above-mentioned in return for another draft pick.
Is Chris Kunitz Available?
Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun wrote in his Sunday column that the Pens are looking to move Chris Kunitz and his $3.85M salary by the 3pm deadline, but admits that will be difficult to transact:
“The Penguins will try to move winger Chris Kunitz before the deadline but with another year on his contract at $3.85 million that could be difficult …”
A rather interesting development considering how captain Sidney Crosby feels not only about having Kunitz on the team, but also on his line.
Kunitz appears to be hitting a wall of sorts. On the one hand he has 15 points in his last 17 games. The flip side of that is he’s been held scoreless in six of his past eight, and has looked slow both in terms of foot speed and getting his shot away. In Boston last Wednesday night Kunitz had the puck on his stick, yet was unable to get a shot away before a Bruins’ defender could get right in front of him and block the attempt.
Any deal involving Kunitz would most likely mean the Pens retaining a portion of his salary. Perhaps a fair tradeoff considering the possible return he could attract.
It figures to be a busy day for Jim Rutherford. While it’s not expected for the Penguins to pull off any blockbusters, he should be busy moving out some players and restocking the draft pick supply and possibly the prospect well.
Meanwhile, don’t count out adding a forward. Although Craig Custance of ESPN had this to say:
As of last night, Penguins had no plans to do anything at forward. Can never count Rutherford out though.
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) February 28, 2016
Whatever the Penguins and GM Rutherford do with the trade deadline; figure them to be a better team on the other side of it.