Should Penguins spend at trade deadline to replace Maatta?

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Sometimes, when a struggling defenseman gets injured, there can be a sort of dark silver lining: it may force a coach to play someone better. Considering how tough it is to find good defensemen, though, there’s the scarier – and probably more likely – reality that they’d be replaced by someone even worse.

That’s the situation the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling with right now, as they announced that Olli Maatta is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered during Monday’s win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Considering that Evgeni Malkin might get suspended for his stick-swinging, that could be a costly win in the short-term, but the long-term implications are more fascinating.

Should the Penguins dip into the trade market for a defenseman, preferably of the top-four variety?

A thin group

Again, there’s no denying that Maatta has been struggling mightily for some time, but more Jack Johnson is frightening, as you can see from how pitiful they both look via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, which uses Corsica’s data.

/Insert horror movie scream.

As far as other Penguins defensemen go:

Schultz has missed most of the season with a pretty freakish injury, having not played since Oct. 13. It seems like he’s slated to return soon, but expecting him to hit the ground running with heavy minutes seems like asking a lot — yet that might be exactly what the Penguins need.

And, let’s face it. Schultz has been a fantastic reclamation project for the Penguins, but he’s most useful when he’s placed in nurturing situations. During four seasons with the Penguins, Schultz has started an average of 55.7-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to Hockey Reference. If he’s asked to shoulder a tougher defensive burden – as he did early this season, albeit in a small sample size – will his game fall apart?

  • Pensburgh and others point out an interesting plug-in option: Ethan Prow.

The undrafted 26-year-old has never played an NHL game, yet he’s tied for second place among AHL defensemen with 37 points this season. Offense isn’t everything, but it’s a positive sign that maybe he can help, and it wouldn’t hurt for the speed-and-skill-oriented Penguins to add another potential weapon.

Shaky market

When you look at TSN’s trade bait list, Craig Custance’s Top 20 Trade Board (sub. required), and other compilations of trade targets, you’ll see a lot of fascinating names, from Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to more grounded considerations, like Wayne Simmonds.

Things are a lot thinner when you’re looking for defensemen, though.

Normally, I’d personally recommend going after Dougie Hamilton, a defenseman who is likely to exceed his perception. Dougie’s not a perfect option for the Penguins for simple money reasons, though: his (actually decent value) $5.75 million cap hit runs through 2020-21. Hamilton also plays for the Hurricanes, who likely wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of enriching a team ahead of them in the East bubble. Similar problems crop up with, say, Trevor Daley.

Granted, there are interesting options here and there. Alec Martinez is a little cheaper than Hamilton ($4M through 2020-21), and the left-hander’s shown he can play on his off-side.

Maybe most importantly, the Kings are eyeing the future, so they might be willing to retain some of Martinez’s salary, and one Penguins issue might be something they’d work with better than others …

Sunk costs

The Penguins have already given up a ton of futures in landing the likes of Nick Bjugstad, and previously, Derick Brassard.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s chart, the Penguins lack:

  • A second, third, or sixth-rounder in 2019. They have Buffalo’s fourth-rounder and Vegas’ seventh-rounder, with Buffalo’s pick currently slated to be a little better, while Vegas’ is likely to be worse than Pittsburgh’s would-be seventh-rounder. The point is, there aren’t a ton of 2019 picks remaining.
  • They don’t have their 2020 second-round pick.

The Penguins, then, would need to part with first-round picks in bigger trades, or a would-be seller would need to accept a third-rounder or worse in 2020, or wait until 2021 to get a second-round pick. (Maybe the Kings would be willing to take a 2021 second-rounder for Martinez, possibly as part of a larger package?)

Not just eyeing this year

Ultimately, Pittsburgh might just look at the landscape and determine that they don’t need to take a big shot in 2018-19, instead allowing things to play out.

After all, much of the Penguins’ planning has been getting “extended” rentals. Bjugstad is signed through 2020-21, as is Tanner Pearson. Jared McCann is cost controlled through 2019-20.

Much of the context points to sticking with this current setup, or at least not making another big splash.

Who knows when the window will close?

There’s also a danger in assuming that Sidney Crosby (31), Evgeni Malkin (32), Phil Kessel (31), and Kris Letang (31) can fight off Father Time enough to keep the Penguins in the contender mix in 2019-20. Sometimes the drop-off can be very, very steep; just ask those selling Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, the Penguins won their 2017 Stanley Cup with Letang injured, and that repeat run came with a defense that wasn’t world-beating even with Letang feeling spry. That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh can always clear those hurdles, so it’s fair to point out that defense is a clear need.

***

To reiterate, the widespread “eye test” matches the numbers: Maatta hasn’t been very good this season.

Still, things could get even worse for the Penguins defense with him sidelined, so it’s not shocking that some might call for more trade deadline spending.

All things considered, should the Penguins roll the dice by being spenders … or take different types of risks by sticking with what they have?

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’ van Riemsdyk fined $5,000 for high-sticking

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NEW YORK (AP) — Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk has been fined $5,000 for high-sticking Kings defenseman Alec Martinez during Los Angeles’ 3-2 shootout win at Philadelphia.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced the fine on Friday. Van Riemsdyk was docked the maximum amount under the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

The high-sticking occurred just over one minute into the first period of Thursday night’s game. Van Riemsdyk was not penalized.

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

Standings slow down trade action ahead of deadline

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

When the Maple Leafs sent a first-round pick and two prospects to the Kings for Jake Muzzin, it didn’t exactly open the flood gates a month before the trade deadline.

That’s because the standings are slowing everything down.

With less than three weeks until the Feb. 25 deadline, there are eight teams within five points of a playoff berth behind the 16 currently holding a slot. The NHL appears to be in wait-and-see mode, even though some big-name players are out there in the trade market. There are far more buyers than sellers right now as general managers wait to see what unfolds and how close they can get to contending.

”We’ll know better by Feb. 25 where we’re at,” said Florida GM Dale Tallon, whose team is 11 points out. ”We’ll go game by game and week by week and then we’ll decide before the deadline what we’re going to do. Performance will dictate what we do.”

The Panthers already made one move, acquiring picks and pending free agents Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan from the Penguins for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad. Of course, they could still try to acquire pending free agent winger Artemi Panarin and/or goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from Columbus.

Panarin and Bobrovsky are two of the hottest commodities who could be available, along with Ottawa forwards Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, Philadelphia winger Wayne Simmonds and Carolina winger Micheal Ferland. Need a goalie and don’t want to pay for a two-time Vezina Trophy winner like Bobrovsky? Edmonton’s Cam Talbot or Detroit’s Jimmy Howard are possibilities.

A lack of true sellers could drive up the prices and delay the falling dominoes.

”Sometimes it drags out a little bit,” Washington GM Brian MacLellan said. ”I think people get frustrated with it, but people are trying to get full value for things they perceive need to be getting full value (for), and it takes it to the end to figure out what is the actual value.”

MacLellan said the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals are active in trade talks. Their championship window is wide open now. For teams like the Flyers, the window isn’t yet open without some changes.

”We could both buy and sell,” Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”Every decision we make, if we’re going to try to improve our team going forward and we can get that player now, great. …. To be better next year, we may have to try to get better this year.”

Plenty of calls should be going to Los Angeles GM Rob Blake, who acknowledged the Kings are ”at the bottom of the league.” They have a potential rental in forward Carl Hagelin and some older players with years left on their deals like Jeff Carter and Alec Martinez. It is a team in transition after winning the Cup in 2012 and 2014.

”We’re looking at a lot of different options,” Blake said. ”I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization.”

MATTHEWS CASHES IN

Toronto agreed to terms with franchise center Auston Matthews on a $58.17 million, five-year extension. Matthews will make much of his money in signing bonuses during the length of the contract that counts $11.634 million against the salary cap through 2023-24. Matthews and the Maple Leafs agreed on something shorter than the eight years Connor McDavid got in Edmonton to keep his salary under $12 million. It remains to be seen what that means for teammate Mitch Marner and Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine in upcoming contract negotiations, both on cap-strapped teams wanting to win now where perhaps a shorter contract is better.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The San Jose Sharks visit the Calgary Flames on Thursday in a matchup of the top two teams in the Pacific Division.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 37; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 59; Points: Kucherov, 81; Ice time: Ryan Suter (Minnesota), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 27; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.02; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .933.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Misguided or not, Devils fans let Kovalchuk have it

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Let’s be honest: being a fan is almost inherently silly.

As Jerry Seinfeld famously joked, you’re often cheering for clothes. People lose sleep to watch games that go late, get in fights with fans of other teams, and spend tons of money to watch people play “a child’s game.” All silly.

On Tuesday, New Jersey Devils fans are choosing to be silly about Ilya Kovalchuk, a player who once helped them make an unexpected run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, only to leave for the KHL and eventually return to Newark as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Despite leaving the Devils during the 2012-13 season, fans made their feelings about him being a “traitor” quite clear.

Fox Sports West collected some of the highlights/lowlights:

To reiterate: yes, this is kind of silly.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski is an authority on the subject of Devils fandom, and he hit the nail on the silly head leading into the game, noting that then-Devils-boss Lou Lamoriello mysteriously didn’t seem to have much of an issue with Kovalchuk leaving when he did:

In the case of Kovalchuk, his departure to Russia saved the Devils enormously. Depending on when he left, the Devils could have been on the hook for multiple years at $5 million of dead cap space. To put things in perspective: That’s an Andy Greene of dead cap space.

By leaving in Year 4 of his 15-year deal, Kovalchuk bailed the Devils out of a toxic contract. They have a cap recapture penalty of just $250,000 annually through 2025. That’s couch-cushion small change in the NHL. He did them an enormous favor, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Lamorielllo let him walk without a fight.

But, whatever. It’s uncomfortable that some of the signs seem … maybe a little … xenophobic, but at least Kovalchuk saw it coming. And it doesn’t seem like he had an issue with playing the role of the villain, at least leading into the game.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Judging by the look on Alec Martinez‘s face, Kovalchuk’s Kings teammates enjoyed some comic relief on Tuesday, too:

via Getty

This rude return seems especially noteworthy considering how long ago the Kovalchuk departure happened.

In that time, the now-35-year-old winger’s game has declined dramatically, to the point that the Devils might be lucky to not have him at all — certainly not at his old, satanic cap hit of $6.66M per year.

Just compare Kovalchuk’s rough 2018-19 to that of Marcus Johansson, a player the Devils almost certainly want to part ways with:

via Bill Comeau / Corsica Hockey

Even if some of Kovalchuk’s troubles might be a matter of not jiving well in Los Angeles – particularly with Willie Desjardins – he’s had a tough time by any measure.

So, really, Devils fans should probably just fondly recall the good times with Kovalchuk, and be glad that their rebuilding team doesn’t have a problem contract on the books.

But fans aren’t always coldly rational, and that’s mostly a good thing — because being a fan isn’t particularly rational, to begin with. And, like we’ve seen with Penguins booing Jaromir Jagr long after Kris Beech hung up his skates, Sharks fans comically booing John Tavares, and countless other examples, it’s not as though Devils fans are outliers here.

(It’s still really silly, though.)

***

The Kings ended up beating the Devils 5-1, with Kovalchuk scoring against New Jersey:

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.

Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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.