More on trade: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep Panarin pursuit?

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In a previous post, PHT went over the elements of the fascinating trade between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, noting the immediate cap concerns and some stats for the players involved. There’s more to chew on when you zoom out even further to the big picture for the teams — and to some extent, the entire league, considering potential trade deadline implications.

So, consider this peeling back another layer to this complex onion of a move. Let’s refresh your memory with the terms of the trade, and then get started.

Penguins receive: Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Panthers receive: Derick BrassardRiley Sheahan, one second-round pick in 2019, and two fourth-round picks (one from the Penguins, one from the Wild via the Jamie Oleksiak trade) in 2019.

Florida faces fascinating fork in the road

If you’re grading the Florida Panthers here, I’d advise you to write the letter grade with a pencil, not a permanent marker. There’s an undeniable air of “To be continued …” here.

You could turn into Charlie Kelly unearthing fictional conspiracy theories with all of the trade tree possibilities here, as the Panthers:

  • Gained about $5.25M in cap space for 2019-20 in shedding Bjugstad and McCann, being that Brassard ($3M) and Sheahan ($2.1M) will see their contracts expire after this season.

  • Replenished/supplemented draft picks by getting three from the Penguins. Not long ago, Florida was looking a bit stark for 2019; by getting a third for Alex Petrovic, a second back in this trade, and two extra fourth-rounders, the Panthers have ammo to make future moves.
  • They could flip Brassard (and maybe even Sheahan?) again for even more picks.

That additional cap space gives Florida room to work with if they want to shoot for Artemi Panarin, (and/or?) Sergei Bobrovsky, or other big-time free agent targets. If I were in the Panthers’ position, I’d be most aggressive in targeting Panarin, or someone like him (example: Mark Stone).

“We’ve freed up a lot of space for an aggressive summer in free agency,” GM Dale Tallon said after the trade, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

With Panarin in particular, the Panthers needs to really search their minds about trying to cut in line by essentially aiming for a sign-and-trade by the deadline, instead of the summer.

Going for a Panarin-type now would mean parting with assets, yet on the other hand, the Panthers would guarantee that they’d land that player if they agreed to an extension.

Such a scenario could very much be worth Florida’s while. After all, while the Panthers have some strengths for a would-be free agent (Florida tax breaks, Florida weather, maybe not Florida Man), they’ve also lacked success as a franchise. The Panthers could avoid losing out to a more established contender by simply bypassing the free agent process and getting a deal done by the deadline.

In the long run, this could be a lot like the NHL’s answer to the New York Knicks trading Kristaps Porzingis in hopes of landing someone like Kevin Durant.

If it works, the Panthers could land a tide-changing talent. This team already has Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Mike Hoffman. Imagine that group with a Panarin-level difference-maker added to the mix?

On the other hand, there’s the risk that the Panthers would be left with little but cap space, possibly leaving them stuck in a familiar situation, much like the sad-sack Knicks.

Time will tell, but it sure seems like Florida is betting big on its future, and that will be an exciting situation to watch.

[More on the immediate aspects of the trade]

Penguins gain *and* lose flexibility

Intriguingly, the Penguins are more versatile on the ice after this trade — but also might box themselves into a corner.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey notes, Pens GM Jim Rutherford values the forward balance this trade could strike, particularly since Bjugstad can play at RW but also at third-line center, where he’s currently slotted.

“It gives us guys who can play in the top-nine, in Nick’s case, the top-six,” Rutherford said. “It makes our top-12 stronger. Now we have guys who will play on our fourth line that can move up into the top-nine on any given night. We have more balance in our forwards than we’ve had all year.”

The Penguins are making calculated risks when it comes to shooting for short and mid-term competitiveness, but like some other aging contenders, you have to wonder if something will have to give.

Alone, spending $5.35M in cap space on Bjugstad and McCann won’t wreck the Penguins’ cap situation. It really wouldn’t be surprising if they end up being fantastic bargains for a team that is perpetually strapped for cash.

But GM Jim Rutherford is continuing to commit this team to moves beyond next season, rather than taking “rentals.”

Tanner Pearson‘s $3.75M cap hit runs through 2020-21. Jack Johnson‘s still-baffling $3.25M won’t run out until 2022-23. McCann’s deal expires after next season, but Bjugstad runs through 2020-21.

That money starts to add up. Via Cap Friendly, the Penguins are slated to allot $78.83M to just 16 players in 2019-20.

They’ve also been bleeding draft picks. Look at Brassard alone and you’ll see that they gave up a first-rounder in 2018 and third-rounder in 2019 (plus a package including Ian Cole and Filip Gustavsson) to land him, and then sent out three picks in this latest trade.

A lot of these moves look pretty positive for the Penguins. After all, they’re getting more than one shot to reap rewards from Bjugstad, as they did with Brassard before him.

On the other hand, if the Penguins are wrong – or if market forces dictate that certain free agents become cheaper than expected, like in the odd MLB situation – then they’ll have less agility to zig and zag. There’s a risk of not having quite enough talent to beat other contenders, while also draining your prospect pool so shallow that you’re stuck in limbo for an extended period of time.

Then again, maybe that’s just the price of doing business in the salary cap era.

***

In a vacuum, this is already a highly interesting trade, and one where the impact changes based on when you’re looking back in hindsight.

It gets even bigger if the Penguins strike the perfect balance for another Stanley Cup run, the Panthers maneuver to land a big fish in free agency or … maybe both?

How do you think this will play out, and what would you do next, particularly if you were running the Panthers? The 2019 trade deadline could end up being endlessly fascinating, and the summer of free agency might be even better. It’s a great time to sizzle on the hockey hot stove.

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.