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PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

If three consecutive Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series translate to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, then Caps fans might look at 2017 as “The Empire Strikes Back.” All that promise ended with darkness … although at least no one lost a hand.

Could this be the year that we see the Capitals celebrating surreally, as if surrounded by ewoks?

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy two seasons in a row only to fall to the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin & Co. still managed to win the Metro. Even so, this team lost a bunch of supporting cast talent during the 2017 off-season, and it showed in many of their stats.

This is as close as we’ve gotten to the Capitals being an underdog on paper, not just in the narratives. Will this group finally be able to overcome the hurdle of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the dynastic (empire?) Penguins?

In other words, with lowered expectations, could there be a new hope?

We won’t need to wait long for the next chapter to begin, as you can watch Game 1 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET; here’s the livestream link.

Schedule

Surging Players

Penguins: Jake Guentzel‘s Game 6 outburst was such a surge, he’d make a great spokesman if they rebooted Surge Cola again. He scored four consecutive goals to turn that contest on its head, and totaled five points just in that contest. It’s not like that was a one-night thing, either; Guentzel and Sidney Crosby sport matching outputs so far: six goals, seven assists for 13 points in just those six games. (They even have identical shooting percentages: their six goals came on 17 SOG, giving them 35.3 shooting percentages, which even make William Karlsson blush.)

To a lesser but still impressive extent, guys like Kris Letang are showing up for Pittsburgh, too. Letang collected three assists in Game 6, and six of his seven playoff points came in the last four contests of the Philly series.

Capitals: The most important surge is probably that of Braden Holtby, who’s been playing at a high level since getting his starting job back.

Other big names were productive against Columbus. John Carlson continues to inspire John Carl$son jokes, as he followed up a career-best regular season by leading the Caps in points with nine (one goal, eight assists). Alex Ovechkin scored twice in Game 6 and had a great series with eight points overall. Nicklas Backstrom did Nicklas Backstrom things.

The most heartening sign might be the assertive play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Beyond the nice production (four goals, four assists), Kuznetsov wasn’t shy about firing the puck, registering 28 SOG, second only to Ovechkin’s 33. Barry Trotz must be pleased.

Struggling players

Penguins: Sometimes it’s difficult to separate cold streaks from “not playing on the same line as stars” in Pittsburgh.

With that disclaimer out there, Conor Sheary (zero goals on 11 SOG) and Tom Kuhnhackl (zero points, just three SOG) have been quiet. Jamie Oleksiak seems to be in low regard lately. After averaging 17:24 TOI since being traded to Pittsburgh during the regular season, Oleksiak is averaging just 11:51 minutes per night during the playoffs.

Capitals: Washington received some nice contributions from depth guys Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, making quiet series from Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana more glaring. Both players generated 27 points during the season and just one assist apiece versus the Blue Jackets.

If something happens to Holtby, you have to wonder where Philipp Grubauer‘s head is at, too.

Goaltending

Penguins: Let’s not forget that it was Marc-Andre Fleury, gestures and all, who played incredibly well in helping the Penguins best the Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Matt Murray‘s experienced an up-and-down season as the unchallenged top goalie, and those peaks and valleys carried over to the playoffs. Murray only managed a .907 save percentage during the regular season and .911 in the postseason. Not great.

On the other hand, he’s been a big-game performer essentially from day one. If nothing else, his resume argues that he can be counted upon.

Capitals: Holtby is off to a fantastic start to the postseason, going 4-1-0 with a phenomenal .932 save percentage. Of course, he briefly lost his job due to an unusually stormy regular season, so it’s dangerous to pencil in “Best Holtby” even after that strong showing.

Fair or not, people will ask if the Penguins are “in his head,” particularly if the series gets off to a high-scoring start. Holtby really wasn’t awful in his previous duels with the Penguins, but he nonetheless fell short both times. Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal can make just about any goalie flounder, let alone one who has some baggage of past defeats.

(Grubauer had a great regular season and a rocky postseason, so he’s basically the opposite of Holtby. For all we know, a cleaner slate could be an asset … but the Capitals don’t want it to get to that point.)

Special teams

Penguins: During the season, the Penguins had a possibly historically lethal power play and a mediocre PK.

They connected on a healthy 20 percent of their opportunities against Philly, but it was Pittsburgh’s penalty kill that really came through, as the Flyers PP really let them down.

Both of these teams have managed dangerous power play units, both during 2017-18 and during their recent histories.

Capitals: John Tortorella & Co. had no answer for Ovechkin’s trips to “his office,” and the other weapons on Washington’s still-mighty power play. The Capitals (easily) topped all playoff teams with nine power-play goals, converting on one-third of their opportunities. They won the special teams battle handily, as they only allowed four PPG and were perfect through the final four games of the series.

During the regular season, Washington was middle-of-the-pack on the PK and ranked seventh with a power play success rate of 22.5 percent.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Fancy stats

Penguins: The Penguins have, essentially, been a possession juggernaut since Mike Sullivan took over. During the bleaker moments of the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh was doomed by bad luck, whether it was poor shooting, Swiss-cheese goaltending, or both.

Those numbers leveled out, and with that, the Penguins took off since the calendar turned to 2018. Pittsburgh hogged the puck on a healthy level against the Flyers, too. The Penguins stand as the more impressive possession team on paper.

Capitals: By a variety of possession metrics, the Capitals were underwhelming, if not downright bad, during the regular season. That said, they showed some signs of improvement late in 2017-18, and were neck-and-neck in possession stats with Columbus, especially if you correct for when the score was within one goal.

The bottom line, though, is that Washington is not a Corsi monster. Ideally, Holtby will continue to play well, and Washington will manufacture high-danger shots. They managed an above-average PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage, which is viewed as a decent shorthand for luck) during the regular season, even with hit-or-miss goaltending.

Injuries

Penguins: This is the Penguins we’re talking about; of course there are significant injury concerns. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have already been ruled out for Game 1, with Malkin’s health being an enormous concern. Pittsburgh’s dealt with a real scare for Kris Letang (he seems fine, or at least playoff-fine?) and also saw Patric Hornqvist miss some reps against the Flyers.

With Pittsburgh aiming for a “threepeat,” they are likely dealing with plenty of wear and tear that doesn’t keep people out of the lineup. All things considered, avoiding a Game 7 was a real bonus.

Capitals: Generally speaking, the Capitals remain flabbergastingly sturdy. Washington’s training staff might actually be wizards. They continued their amazing run of health for another season:

That said, this is a hockey team, so of course there are issues. Andre Burakovsky‘s out week-to-week, likely missing the remainder of the postseason. T.J. Oshie appears to be banged up, too.

X-Factor for Penguins

How can it not be Malkin’s health?

If the star center is only going to miss Game 1, or even just the first two games in Washington, the Penguins might be able to steal a win or two on the road. If he misses significant time or simply can’t play anywhere near an optimal level, the Penguins might fall short of the Caps’ firepower.

X-Factor for Capitals

Most of the time when people bring up “the yips” and “clutchness,” I roll my eyes. Sometimes it’s downright fun to play on those tropes/misconceptions.

The Capitals are a pretty special case, here, so you have to wonder if they’ll maintain morale if things get hairy.

This team has been lampooned for much of Ovechkin’s prime for falling short in the postseason, particularly against the hated Penguins. Washington fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Columbus, and they actually fought back from 3-1 to push their last series with Pittsburgh to a heartbreaking Game 7. So they aren’t “quitters,” yet you wonder if the sheer volume of letdowns might make them fragile.

What happens if this series starts off with some poor play and/or bad luck? Could things really go off the rails?

The narrative could go from “No one expects anything from this version of our team” to “Uh oh, it’s happening again” in dizzying speed.

Prediction

Penguins in 7: In many cases, breakthroughs happen after you give up on a sports team. Dirk Nowitzki’s title run happened after many gave up on the Mavericks in the NBA. The Sharks absorbed year after year of disappointments before making it to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. It’s a common joke that this could be the Capitals’ year because that’s just how weird the playoffs are, and it’s not as though the Caps are a bad team. They won the Metropolitan Division for a reason.

Still, the Penguins boast a deep, scary offense. They seem capable of finding that “extra gear” and still haven’t lost as series under Mike Sullivan. Here’s a reluctant vote for history repeating itself instead of the law of averages winning out.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flyers, Hayes agree to seven-year, $50 million deal: report

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The Philadelphia Flyers took a calculated gamble, trading a late-round pick for the rights to negotiate with center Kevin Hayes. It appears that move is now paying off, for both team and player.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported Tuesday night that Hayes, a pending unrestricted free agent, are closing in on a seven-year, $50 million deal ($7.14 million annual average value), taking one more big name free agent off the board long before the free agency window opens on July 1.

A day normally referred to as a ‘frenzy’ will be merely a whimper at the pace big names are being erased off the list.

The Flyers really wanted their guy, so much so that they’re paying a guy who’s only broken the 20-goal mark once and has only surpassed 50 points once, too — this year, with 55 points in 71 games with the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets.

But teams will pay big money for a top-six center who is large in stature and has a knack for using that frame to drive to the net. At 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds, Hayes is a formidable figure on the ice and at 27, is coming into the prime of his career.

Hayes becomes the 18th highest paid center in the NHL, making more than Patrice Bergeron in Boston, Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado and Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg — all three players who are top-line centers on their respective teams and with significantly more success in the production department.

CapFriendly has the nearest comparable to Hayes’ contract listed as Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, who won the Conn Smythe a few nights ago.

The Flyers acquired the rights to court Hayes last week when they sent a 2019 fifth-round pick to the Jets, who brought Hayes in from the Rangers at the trade deadline.

Hayes didn’t impress in Winnipeg, but came into a team that was on a downward trajectory and couldn’t rectify it himself.

Initially, it was reported that Philly wasn’t No. 1 on Hayes’ list. We can suppose that changed as the AAV rose in negotiations.

A couple thoughts:

  • Matt Duchene must be licking his chops at this point. Duchene, a UFA himself, is going to be signing T-Pain’s ‘I’m so Paid’ for years to come.
  • It would appear the dollar figure for William Karlsson would come in around this mark.
  • The Flyers are doing big things this offseason.

Earlier on Tuesday, they added defenseman Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks, taking advantage of a team that needed to shed some salary.

The Hayes signing just highlights further the aggressive off-season by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher is undertaking, vastly different than Ron Hextall’s slow-and-steady plan.

Over the last week, they added Matt Niskanen from the Washington Capitals by shipping Radko Gudas the other way and bought out Andrew MacDonald‘s contract.

And they still have nearly $23 million to work with and restricted free agents in Scott Laughton, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov they still need to sign.

The Flyers are that darkhorse team for next year. They’ve appeared to find a capable starter in Carter Hart, have re-tooled their blue line and still have names such as Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek to go along with the Hayes addition.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Trent Yawney joins McLellan’s coaching staff with LA Kings

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Trent Yawney has joined Todd McLellan’s staff as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings announced the hiring Tuesday.

Yawney was an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers last season. The former Chicago Blackhawks head coach spent 2014-18 on the staff of the Anaheim Ducks, working under Bruce Boudreau and Randy Carlyle.

Yawney was McLellan’s assistant for three seasons with the San Jose Sharks from 2008-11. Yawney and McLellan also played together for two seasons with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades from 1983-85.

Yawney specializes in coaching defensemen. He joins a staff in Los Angeles including Marco Sturm and goaltending coach Bill Ranford, two holdovers from Willie Desjardins’ staff last season.

McLellan was hired by the Kings on April 16.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Trouba trade highlights Rangers’ brilliant rebuild

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While it’s important to understand the context for why the Jets made the trade, the bottom line is that the Jacob Trouba trade is a slam dunk for the New York Rangers. Scratch that, we need a more pronounced sports metaphor: it was a grand slam.

It also says a lot about the Rangers’ rebuild process that, while the Trouba trade might be management’s best move yet, there are plenty of other fantastic moves to choose from.

Brassard bonanza

If you want a starting point that includes an exclamation point, begin with the monstrously one-sided Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard trade. The trade seems to get more lopsided with every Zibanejad goal, and after every time Brassard sadly packs his bag after being traded once again. It’s almost cruel that the Rangers received a second-rounder while Ottawa only nabbed a seventh-rounder as part of that deal.

(Really, that trade isn’t that far off from the Rangers’ buddies in New Jersey stealing Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson.)

If you start with the Zibanejad heist and end with trading for Trouba plus the near-certain selection of high-end prospect Kaapo Kakko, you’d see that the Rangers are writing the blueprint for how to run an NHL rebuild. Sure, there’s been luck here and there – particularly in getting 2019’s second pick – but the Rangers have done more to make their own luck than any other rebuilding team.

Turning Pionk and the 20th pick into Trouba

Neal Pionk‘s presence in the Trouba trade stands as one of the testaments to the Rangers’ full rebuild approach.

Where the occasionally rebuild-resistant Red Wings gave opportunities to aging veterans like Mike Green and Thomas Vanek (Vanek had a no-trade clause this past season!), the Rangers pulled a perfect “pump-and-dump” with Pionk. There’s some evidence that Pionk was a fairly substantial part of the package for the Jets, so the Rangers deserve some credit for driving up Pionk’s value. Depending upon whom you ask, the Rangers might have profited from the Jets overlooking dismal underlying numbers for Pionk.

Whatever Winnipeg’s actual opinion of Pionk might be, the bottom line is that Trouba is an enormous addition for the Rangers. You can get into a debate about how good or great Trouba really is, but the bottom line is that he’s immediately the Rangers’ best blueliner, and almost certainly by a wide margin.

(As great as the Pionk pump-and-dump turned out, the Rangers’ paltry defense opened up that scenario by … you know, being really bad.)

Putting on a hard hat for this rebuild

Yes, the Rangers have lucked out here and there (a huge lottery jump to the upcoming No. 2 pick, the Jets being in a bind so they needed to trade Trouba, the hilarity of the Zibanejad heist), but they’ve also made their own luck by making tough decisions.

Lesser teams would have kept all or some of Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta, possibly losing them for nothing via free agency anyway. Instead, the Rangers made those often-painful choices, and are healing faster after pulling off those Band-Aids.

Thanks to that hard work, they’ve added a nice war chest of picks, prospects, players, and assets.

  • Again, Trouba is a top-pairing defenseman, if not a star, and is thus a huge addition.
  • Adam Fox is a hyped defensive prospect in his own right, costing the Rangers a couple draft picks.
  • We’ll see how Lias Andersson develops, but the Rangers wouldn’t have received the seventh pick of the 2017 NHL Draft if they didn’t trade Stepan and Raanta.
  • Maybe the Rangers didn’t get a perfect deal for McDonagh and J.T. Miller, but it was another example of New York loading up on volume in picks and prospects. For example: if K’Andre Miller (22nd overall in 2018) becomes a gem, note that the Rangers used some of their quantity of draft picks to move up a bit and snag him.
  • A Stars’ Game 7 win against the Blues in Round 2 would have turned a 2019 second-rounder into a 2019 first-rounder for New York, but the bottom line is that the Rangers got a nice deal for Zuccarello. Also, if Zuccarello re-signs with the Stars, the Rangers get a first-rounder in 2020, instead of a third-rounder. You simply need to make that call with a 31-year-old winger, even one as beloved as Zuccarello.
  • The 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft went from the Jets to the Rangers in the Kevin Hayes deal, and that the Rangers sent it back to Winnipeg in the Trouba trade. So, if the Rangers didn’t trade Hayes, they might not have landed Trouba. Again: load up on picks and assets, and load up on scenarios where you can get better. The Rangers have been masterful at this.
  • If there was hand-wringing over giving up assets for Adam Fox, the Rangers soothed some of them by landing some lesser picks for Adam McQuaid.

Phew, that’s a lot of stuff, and this is the abridged version of that trade book; you can see a fuller list via Cap Friendly’s handy trade history page.

Mix those above moves with some interesting picks like Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov, and the Rangers are making leaps, rather than baby steps, toward being competitive once again.

Kaapo Kakko ranks as the biggest pending prospect addition, yet he could have some nice help thanks to the Rangers’ other moves.

More work to do

Speaking of other moves, the Rangers’ work isn’t done yet.

The most intriguing situation would come down to switching gears if Artemi Panarin really is interested in hitting Broadway.

The Trouba trade, not to mention the influx of talent headlined by Kakko, could make the Rangers a more appealing destination for Panarin. That’s especially true if the Rangers have even more tricks up their sleeves as Cap Friendly projects their cap space at about $19M (though a Trouba contract and Panarin pact would make that dry up fast).

The Rangers don’t have to rush things if they don’t want to, or if Panarin looks elsewhere, though.

For one thing, Mika Zibanejad rules, is just 26, and is a bargain for some time ($5.3M cap hit through 2021-22). A potential trio of DJ Z-Bad, The Bread Man, and (whatever nickname we give) Kakko could be one heck of a start.

Especially since the Rangers boast other interesting forwards at or near their primes.

Chris Kreider (28, $4.625M), Vladislav Namestnikov (26, $4M), and Jimmy Vesey (26, $2.275M) all enter contract years in 2018-19. The Rangers could trade one or more of those three forwards, either before the season or even at the trade deadline, or keep them around if they’re primed for immediate competition. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Sabres have already contacted the Rangers about Vesey, so for all we know, more significant moves could come soon.

(If you ask me, Kreider is the standout of those three, although that might make him even more appealing to trade.)

Money clearing up

The Rangers’ salary structure should look a lot cleaner after 2020-21, too.

Consider three expensive, aging veterans who are all coming off the books after two more seasons: Henrik Lundqvist (37, $8.5M per season), Kevin Shattenkirk (30, $6.65M), and Marc Staal (32, $5.75M).

For some, the Rangers’ rebuild is held back by Lundqvist, as there’s an objective argument that it would be wiser to part ways with the future Hall of Famer. That makes sense in a vacuum, but context matters: trading Lundqvist would be a very difficult thing to spin PR-wise, particularly since the Rangers are already asking fans to be patient. Maybe trading away “King Henrik” would be too extreme for fans paying big bucks at MSG.

It’s probably healthier to look at that situation with a more optimistic outlook.

There’s a scenario where the Rangers do indeed make a quantum leap from rebuilder to contender, giving Lundqvist one or two more chances to chase that coveted first Stanley Cup.

On the other hand, maybe the Rangers strategically stink, and Lundqvist either: a) plays out his contract, thus eventually opening up a ton of space in two years or b) gets antsy and asks for a trade to a contender, likely easing angst from fans if the Rangers did make a trade. Maybe Rangers fans could cheer on Lundqvist somewhere else, as some Bruins fans did when Ray Bourque lifted a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche?

All things considered, it could be worse, right?

You can apply similar logic to Shattenkirk and Staal.

In Shattenkirk’s case, I wouldn’t be shocked if the American-born defenseman rebounded at least to some extent. In 2017-18, he was hampered by a knee injury that eventually prompted surgery. Last season, it was probably tough for any Rangers defenseman to look respectable. (Hey, Shattenkirk’s relative stats are OK.)

It’s not outrageous to picture Shattenkirk’s perception rise if Trouba helps his fellow right-handed defenseman slide into a sheltered, and less prominent role. If that happened, the Rangers could either get more out of Shattenkirk from improved play, or maybe even trading him. This is a league where teams are desperate for defense, so you never know.

Marc Staal seems like more of a lost cause, at least if you look at deeper numbers, yet as we’ve seen frequently in the NHL, plenty of teams either don’t care about analytics, or will value narratives about “sturdy veterans” more than any graphs or stats.

Those teams are more liable to pursue Staal now that his term is down to two years remaining, and the Rangers could also offer to retain salary to make something happen.

Now, it’s possible that none of Lundqvist, Shattenkirk, or Staal would get traded. There may be no takers, and all three have clauses of some kind to make deals more difficult to strike.

But even if they play things out, and so at a disappointing level, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that light isn’t even very far away.

***

After heaping all of this praise on the Rangers, it’s important to reiterate that there’s plenty of work to do, and plenty of ways where things could still go wrong. Maybe the Rangers make Bobby Holik-type free agent mistakes again once they start spending money, or maybe management gets impatient with losing and pulls the plug on the rebuild before the foundation settles?

Overall, though, you can’t ask for much better work than what we’ve seen from the Rangers, especially in the NHL, where teams aren’t always as bold as they should be when it comes to making trades and getting creative.

This could very well be the peak of the rebuild as far as a single week of moves goes, but this isn’t an isolated incident. The Rangers have done a brilliant job of building a brighter future after being in a pretty dark situation not that long ago.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins GM on Maatta over Johnson, future for Malkin and Letang

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With trades already heating up during the trade-friendly time that is the week surrounding the 2019 NHL Draft, the most fun activity is grading the impact of trades … but imagining what else might happen is almost as fun.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t really make it seem like he’s eager to trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang during an interview with 93.7 The Fan on Monday, but Rutherford also didn’t slam the door totally shut by guaranteeing that Malkin and Letang will be back, either.

Fair or not, some will allow their imaginations to go through the roof after Rutherford merely didn’t close the door and lock it.

Not pursuing those trades, but would listen?

During the interview, Rutherford comically referenced Wayne Gretzky being traded as Rutherford was essentially claiming “never say never,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Vensel transcribed.

“There’s been great players traded in this league,” Rutherford said. “If somebody comes along with a package that makes sense for the Penguins, we have to look at it. These are not, the guys that you mentioned, are not guys that I’m pushing to trade.”

Rutherford also said that Malkin and Letang are the “kind of players you win championships with,” and stated that he believes they’re still great players.

For plenty of Penguins fans, this is mostly a relief, especially if Rutherford is really just giving such trades “Dumb & Dumber” odds.

The most important Malkin-related quote may have surfaced a week ago, as Rutherford explained that things seem to have smoothed over between the team and player, via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required):

“At the time you asked me those questions, it was hard to zero in on too many people because I was thinking about making a lot of changes,” Rutherford said while referencing spicier comments after the Penguins were swept by the Islanders. “But I’ll say this: I believe in Geno Malkin. He came off a year that wasn’t up to his standard last year. We all know that. But he’s a great, great player. I know how good he is, and I know very well what he can do for this team. I wasn’t going to 100 percent commit at that point in time. But in the back of my mind, I knew he was going to be part of this team going forward. And you know what? He was aware of that, too.”

(Anyone else think that “I believe in Geno Malkin” could be a hot-selling shirt in Pittsburgh?)

Rutherford reiterated another stance from a week ago: that he doesn’t expect to trade Phil Kessel. His comments in that regard may calm down those worried about a reckless Letang/Malkin trade, too, as a lot of Rutherford’s language is “I’m not looking to trade X, but I have to at least listen …”

With all of that in mind, it’s maybe most pressing to hear Rutherford speak about more plausible trade targets on his team.

Jack of no trades?

Interestingly, Rutherford didn’t exactly fan the flames about Jack Johnson being traded.

During Monday’s spot with 93.7 The Fan, Rutherford seemed to indicate that, with Olli Maatta traded for cap space, the Penguins may not try to get rid of Johnson’s contract. Surprisingly, Rutherford also claimed that Johnson was not involved in the trade that Phil Kessel reportedly nixed, which would have sent Kessel and Johnson to the Minnesota Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask.

Moving Maatta did get the Penguins out of the most immediate “trouble” that might surface from the salary cap possibly being closer to $82 million than the expected $83 million for 2019-20 … but not at least projecting much interest in trading Johnson should be disappointing for Penguins fans.

It would have been startling enough last summer when the Penguins handed Johnson – a deeply flawed, and not especially young, defenseman – a contract that included a $3.25M cap hit. But it was downright bewildering that the now-32-year-old also received beefy term, as that problem deal runs through 2022-23.

Yes, the Penguins’ defense needs help, but there’s an uncomfortable argument that getting rid of Johnson would count as “addition by subtraction” even before you factor in getting rid of that $3.25M cap hit.

While Maatta’s market value was almost certainly far better than JJ’s value (the Penguins landed a solid package for the defenseman) it’s cringe-worthy to consider an either/or possibility coming down to Maatta vs. Johnson. Especially since, frankly, Maatta isn’t that much more expensive than Johnson, what with Maatta coming in at $4.083M per season.

Penguins fans might want to look away at this Sean Tierney visualization of the team’s defensemen in 2018-19, which uses Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) data:

(You can slice it up in many other ways, and it usually doesn’t come out looking much better.)

Again, it’s possible that the Penguins simply didn’t have any real offers to get rid of Johnson. Maybe Rutherford simply didn’t want to admit it, or maybe there was a part of him that hopes that projecting some positivity might keep the door open to get rid of a big mistake.

***

Ultimately, the Penguins’ window of contention could close rapidly, so it’s important to get this stuff right.

In the case of trading Malkin or Letang, the best move would almost certainly be to stay put. Meanwhile, if the Penguins aren’t exploring avenues to get rid of Johnson-type problems, then the Penguins are leaving opportunities on the table. Finally, with Kessel, the option just might not be there — whether it would be smart to trade Kessel or not.

Elliotte Friedman points to the Penguins being one of the most aggressive teams in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” so they’re certainly a team to watch over the next week or so.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.