With the loss of Nick Bonino to Nashville via free agency, the reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins have a gaping hole down the middle. For the first time in over a decade, the center position is now one of relative weakness. It’s always a possibility that Matt Cullen decides to re-sign for one more year, but he will not be able to carry the load of a typical 3rd-line center. Cullen showed signs of slowing down toward the tail-end of the team’s playoff run, and he was only averaging 13:55 a game through the regular season. At 41 years old, he simply won’t be a viable long-term option. The Penguins likely have high hopes for Zach Aston-Reese to make a push in training camp, but he is an unknown quantity at the NHL level. GM Jim Rutherford had 5 potential trade options in the works prior to July 1st, according to the very reliable Josh Yohe of DKPittsburghSports. Talks either fizzled or were put on the back-burner, but one might imagine the number of available targets is far fewer now. With Dallas’ three-year signing of Radek Faksa, there is one fewer name left for consideration. Vegas seems to be content with merely flipping defensemen from here on in, although names such as Cody Eakin and William Karlsson shouldn’t be thrown out entirely. Erik Haula is likely a pipe-dream, but he’s another possible target. Matt Duchene was linked for a time, but between the high cost and the stubbornness of Colorado GM Joe Sakic to make a move, he seems incredibly unlikely.
Bozak has made tons of sense since his name was first mentioned. A lot has been made of his relationship with Phil Kessel. When they played on a line together in Toronto, Kessel saw some of his best career production. More than that however – the Leafs are in a bit of cap pinch as they will look to free up dollars for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander in the next two seasons. They certainly aren’t in any hurry to drop underneath the ceiling due to LTIR intricacies, but moving out Bozak’s $4.2 MM for this next season would be a forward looking move. If he’s due a raise, it’s likely they’ll lose him for far less, as his contract expires at the end of 2017-18. The move makes sense for Pittsburgh because of the Kessel relationship, but also because he fits the mold of the Pittsburgh squad. He’s a solid skater, sees the ice well, and hustles back into his own zone. His playmaking abilities would be a wonderful fit on the cheap to aid the high-powered offense, and the player would be a positive possession asset to remove the stress from the bigger guns. Bozak does have a modified no-trade clause, but it’s hard to see Pittsburgh being included on his list of non-tradeable teams.
Staal saw a lot of success in Pittsburgh before he was traded away to Carolina at the 2012 draft. Jordan was traded to that team in particular due to his desire to player with his older brother Eric Staal. Seeing as Eric is no longer in the picture, it would make sense that Staal might be open to a Pittsburgh reunion. Staal is one of the better defensive centers in the league, and has been forced to take a more uncomfortably offensive role in Carolina. Staal’s biggest downside is that he isn’t the most agile skater, but he’s not any slower than Nick Bonino was. That said, he can play the shutdown role and be a total nuisance for top opponents. Rutherford loves the player, as he was the GM of Carolina when they initially acquired the player, for a hefty sum of Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and a 1st-round pick (which became Derrick Pouilot). According to Yohe, Staal is apparently open to a return, and the nostalgic element of the team’s fanbase is clamoring for this to happen. Rutherford stated on a local radio segment with Ron Cook that “to his knowledge he (Staal) isn’t available”, but he’s played coy with the media in the past.
Out Of Left-Field
Rutherford has been known to throw the hockey world for a loop with some of his trades. The James Neal–Patric Hornqvist trade shocked just about everyone, and the Phil Kessel trade is still being discussed to this day. If there’s one thing we should expect from him, it’s the unexpected. There are a few lesser options out there for Rutherford to explore, and management may want to have the Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin contracts put to paper before making any sort of transaction. It seems unlikely that anything will happen until those deals get done. Rutherford told Jason Mackey of the Post-Gazette that there are “hundreds of names on (his list)”, and that it’s “a patient process”. Could Detroit be willing to move Andreas Athanasiou? Could Bryan Little be pried from Winnipeg for a young defenseman? It’s hard to speculate as to where exactly management have set their sights, but Rutherford is generally willing to overpay to “get his man”. There is the slight likelihood that they enter the season with that hole left unfilled, but it’s hard to imagine. Until more dominoes fall, Rutherford is likely to bide his team and search for the correct deal.