Young defenseman Slater Koekkoek had one game remaining in his conditioning reassignment and the Tampa Bay Lightning had been searching for a trade partner before its expiration. They have found one, as TSN’s Bob McKenzie was the first to report that Koekkoek is headed to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for veteran defenseman Jan Rutta. Also being exchanged are two late draft picks, as Chicago acquires a 2019 fifth-round pick and Tampa acquires a 2019 seventh-round pick, per the Blackhawks’ announcement.
This is the fourth trade made today alone, as the NHL trade market appears to be heating up. While Koekkoek had long been expected to be moved, Rutta comes as slightly more of a surprise. The 28-year-old cleared waivers and was sent to the AHL last month after recording just six points through 28 games. Rutta came over from his native Czech Republic last season as one of the best defenseman in the top Czech league. He carved out a role for himself with Chicago, registering 20 points in 57 games and showing flashes of brilliance at times. The Blackhawks resigned Rutta to a one-year, $2.25MM contract that immediately turned on them as he struggled right off the bat this season. Given that he cleared waivers not long ago in the midst of a down season and the Blackhawks have since traded Brandon Manning and released Jason Garrison, Ruuta’s name had not been heard much on the rumor mill.
Yet, despite his struggles and impending free agency, not to mention being both older and having less NHL experience, the details of the trade imply Rutta is considered the better of the two players. Chicago acquired both Koekkoek, who the team may control as an impending restricted free agent, and the better of the two picks in the deal. Rutta is nice depth piece for Tampa Bay in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup, but Koekkoek has the higher ceiling and longevity. The No. 10 pick overall in 2012, the 24-year-old Koekkoek is a hard-working defenseman who possesses the puck well. However, he simply never played consistently well enough to earn a regular role for the Lightning and the risk of losing him for nothing on waivers had begun to hamstring their roster decisions. There is some question as to whether Koekkoek has the high-end skill of a true NHL defenseman, but he will get the opportunity to prove it one way or another for the struggling Blackhawks, who made a completely risk-free trade.