Often lost in the narrative chronicling the Penguins’ need for a third-line center is the fact that money will almost certainly head the other direction in any trade. Currently, Pittsburgh is a respectable $3.82 MM under the cap ceiling, but a few factors should be considered. Firstly, GM Jim Rutherford will almost surely allot at least $1 MM in space to acquire necessary rentals at the trade deadline. Second, his defensive and center depth is rather weak overall, so any move would likely not be the last before a post-season pursuit. Third, and perhaps most important, multiple contracts on the horizon will force uncomfortable decisions on wing and top-four defense.
With Matt Cullen departing for Minnesota, the Penguins’ third best center is Carter Rowney, just one season removed from AHL plug duty. Zach Aston-Reese could fill in temporarily, but it’s not ideal for his first professional season. The teams needs an upper-echelon third center option, and available options are supremely limited league-wide. Rutherford claimed to have half a dozen options in July, but with the summer expiring the options are far fewer. Although Rutherford is playing his cards close to his chest, it’s nearly inconceivable that the Penguins go into the new year without greater certainty at that position. A move needs to be made.
On defense, the team will need to determine the future of multiple players. It’s a fair assumption that the team will bank on the improved health of Norris-capable Kris Letang, for better or worse. Justin Schultz is also safe, as is the dependable Brian Dumoulin. In that fourth position, will the Pens re-sign impending UFA Ian Cole, or will his shot-blocking mentality start to show its toll? Is Olli Maatta worth $4.083 MM on a cash strapped team? Will Derrick Pouliot finally clean up his turnovers and make an impact in the Steel City and make either expendable? If Maatta’s skating doesn’t substantially improve, it’s a safe bet his contract will be the one off-loaded in any transaction, regardless of potential and upside.
On offense, the team will also need to make painful judgments. Patric Hornqvist is entering his final year of his contract, and at 31 years old, how will his body hold up multiple seasons into a new contract? Would Bryan Rust be able to replace his intangibles and hard-nosed offense at a fraction of the cost? His internal value is incredibly high, but he’s been relegated to a third-line role for the foreseeable future. Additionally, how devoted is Pittsburgh to the Phil Kessel model? It seems incredibly far-fetched that the team might consider moving Kessel, and they would undoubtedly receive a lesser player in any trade. Still, his $6.8 MM is a strain on the overall forward structure. With Jake Guentzel looking to land a substantial raise in two seasons, Kessel may not be entirely untouchable. Finally, could an accessory piece be moved off the roster as a throw-in for a potential elite third-line center? Impending RFA Scott Wilson isn’t the most glamorous of names, but he could easily earn decent money on his next contract and provide depth scoring for a re-building team. Carl Hagelin’s $4 MM was well above his current rate of production, and his blistering speed could be a tempting add for any squad.
In the final evaluation, Pittsburgh will almost certainly part with a roster player if they are to land a significant piece at the 3rd-line center position. Maatta seems most likely, and has for some time, but the selling teams will have a definite upper-hand in all negotiations, and the money complicates matters. The team has shown time and again it is willing to part with high-end draft picks, but any impending deal will necessarily be more intricate, considering the dearth of the organization’s prospect pool and other contributing factors.