Olli Maatta

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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.

Penguins trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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.

Krejci, Bruins maul Penguins in 8-4 win

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Where do you begin in a game that featured 12 goals, a goalie pulled in the first six minutes of the game, a man scoring a hat trick and two behemoths fighting each other?

Pick your poison, I suppose.

An 8-4 win for the Boston Bruins against the Pittsburgh Penguins produced a number of notable moments in New England on Thursday.

Olli Maatta scored his first of two goals in the game 35 seconds into the first period. At that point, it looked like the Penguins were off to a good start sporting a 1-0 lead. But the nets behind each goaltender took a beating in the first period.

Both teams combined for eight goals, with the Bruins emerging with a 5-3 lead at the first intermission. Boston scored three straight to answer Maatta’s marker and then some, including Rick Nash‘s second goal in as many games wearing the spoked B.

David Krejci built upon his first-period goal to give the Bruins a 6-3 lead 2:16 in the second period. He would later complete his first hat trick in four years at the 14:33 mark.

It wasn’t a kind night for any of the three goalies that featured in the game.

Casey DeSmith didn’t last long in the Penguins crease, allowing three goals on five shots in the first 5:30 of the first period, a solid .400 save percentage. Tristan Jarry relieved DeSmith and got pelted all the same, allowing further five goals, albeit on 33 shots.

Rask started off a little shaky, but found his composure as the game wore on. It wasn’t pretty, allowing four on 26 shots, but the 30-year-old won’t be complaining about his 26th win.

It was the type of game where the video footage likely won’t look great on either side, but Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will want to spend some time showing his club how poorly they played (other than blocking shots, which the Penguins did 25 times in the game).

Boston had 29 shots on goal through 40 minutes, and the score reflected it. Pittsburgh looked a mess, and they’ve now lost three straight. They sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division and need to stop the bleeding with the New Jersey Devils (who lost on Thursday) hot on their heels.

The Bruins, meanwhile, moved into second place in the Atlantic Division, leapfrogging the Toronto Maple Leafs to sit four points back of the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins have two games in hand on the Lightning and four on the Maple Leafs.


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

Boyle is not alone in fighting cancer and playing hockey

When Phil Kessel got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, he asked doctors, ”When can I play?”

When Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, he had the choice of taking a chemotherapy pill or having a bone marrow transplant that would cause him to miss a full season. He chose the pill and got back on the ice.

After his cancer diagnosis last month, New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle quickly turned his attention to playing hockey again. He will join a group of NHL players who played with cancer or after beating the disease, including Kessel, Blake, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

”This (stuff) rocks your world,” said Blake, who played six more seasons after being diagnosed with CML, the same type of bone marrow cancer Boyle is now fighting. ”It’s tough. I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, who you are. When someone says you have cancer, it definitely turns your world upside down.”

Now 44 and retired, Blake reached out to Boyle last month to offer his support. Blake said if his situation had come up five years earlier, doctors would’ve given him a 50/50 chance of living five to seven more years and is glad Boyle can benefit from even more advanced technology.

Blake said medication ”shocked my system” and made him lose a lot of weight. He still feels tired but was glad to have his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates and hockey to distract him from his battle with cancer when he wasn’t with his wife and three children.

”That’s the one positive or plus that every time I went to the rink, you kind of just forget about it,” Blake said. ”Those are distractions, and those are good distractions in this case. I understand what (Boyle) is going through, but I understand the person that he is, he’s a character guy and I know that he’ll get through this no problem.”

Kessel said Boyle has a great support system from his family, teammates and players around the league.

”Having a positive attitude toward the fight is important,” Kessel said. ”He needs to listen to the professionals and do whatever you can to return to the game.”

Kessel was found to have testicular cancer at age 19 and recently partnered with Cigna on the NHL’s ”Every Save Counts” program to raise awareness and money for cancer research. After noticing a lump and having surgery early in his rookie season in 2006-07, Kessel was back on the ice in 11 days.

”I love the game and I knew that because I was in good shape that this would help me in returning as quickly as I could,” Kessel said. ”I didn’t want to miss any games. I was fortunate that I came back as soon as I did.”

Longtime coach and general manager Bryan Murray, who lost his battle with colon cancer this past summer at age 74, said he wanted early detection to be part of his legacy. Nephew Tim Murray, a former Buffalo Sabres GM, was one of several people around hockey who immediately got a colonoscopy.

Kessel hopes he can have the same effect.

”If partnering with Cigna to share my personal health story can encourage others to get a check-up with their doctor and potentially save a life, that’s a huge win for me,” said Kessel, who has won the Stanley Cup with Maatta for Lemieux’s Penguins each of the past two seasons. ”Being a voice for early detection and regular check-ups will always be my priority.”

Lemieux missed two months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 27 and then took a leave of absence because of fatigue brought on by radiation treatments. Upon his return, ”Super Mario” led the league with 69 goals, 92 assists and 161 points and won the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Koivu missed most of 2001-02 with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, set a new career high with 71 points the next year and played 11 more NHL seasons. Maatta, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014, returned two weeks after surgery.

”When I found out I had a tumor, it’s scary,” Maatta said. ”It’s a scary word. Every situation’s different. There are different stages, and mine was really harmless and easy to take out. … The more we found out about it, the less scary it was for me. I was lucky with that.”

Lemieux, Kessel, Blake, Koivu and Maatta provide examples for Boyle that he can not only keep playing but at a high level.

”I’m expecting to live my life, to live a normal life,” Boyle said. ”Hopefully the season can go on as normal, as regular as possible. We don’t have to be asking about it all the time. And if I suck one night, it’s because I sucked, not because of any other reason and hopefully if that’s the biggest issue, then that’s a good thing.”

HOCKEY AND POLITICS

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown on Saturday night became the first hockey player to engage in a national anthem protest when he stood on the bench with his fist raised in the air. Brown said he received death threats and racist remarks on Twitter after his protest but defended his decision to bring light to ”police brutality, racial injustice and inequality” in the U.S.

”I know it may not sit well with everyone, but to truly make change in this world we must be able to be pushed outside of our comfort zone,” Brown said on Twitter. ”I want young minorities to see that what they may be going through is not being ignored by the hockey community.”

The Cup champion Penguins visited President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, reiterating that it wasn’t about politics. Trump mostly stuck to hockey, and coach Mike Sullivan thought the ceremony went well.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 7; Assists: Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington), 8; Points: Kuznetsov, 8; Time on ice: Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), 27:02. Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 0.48; Save percentage: Bobrovsky, .985.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on Saturday night visit the Chicago Blackhawks, who they swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

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

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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