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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Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?

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For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

Looking to make the leap: Derrick Pouliot

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Is this the year Derrick Pouliot transitions from promising prospect to full-time pro?

He seems to think so.

“I think I’m capable of being a reliable defender in this league. I think I can produce even more offensively, too,” Pouliot said earlier this summer, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s really about taking a two-way role, not giving up anything and creating some chances for us.

“I’ll come into camp in shape and be able to handle some more minutes.”

Last season, Pouliot looked primed to make the leap. He made his NHL debut in December and eventually replaced an injured Olli Maatta on Pittsburgh’s blueline, impressing onlookers through 34 games until an injury of his own prematurely ended the campaign.

While it was a good showing from a kid that only turned 21 in January — Pouliot racked up seven points while averaging 17:33 TOI — the former WHL Portland standout only provided a glimpse of what he could do.

Now, the Pens want a much bigger look.

They also need it.

Pittsburgh’s defense took a hit this offseason and, as a result, Pouliot’s role is bound to increase. Blueline minutes are there for the taking: Paul Martin, who averaged nearly 23 per game last season, is now in San Jose while Christian Ehrhoff, who averaged nearly 22, is in L.A.

Rob Scuderi turns 37 in December and seems primed for a (further) diminished role, and it remains to be seen if the Ben Lovejoy-for-Simon Despres trade will ever work out in the Pens’ favor.

So, enter Pouliot.

The eighth overall pick in 2012, he’s expected to shoulder a significant load this year, despite it being (essentially) his first full NHL campaign. And this isn’t any ordinary team he’s looking to leap into; Pittsburgh made major splashes throughout the summer, none bigger than the Phil Kessel acquisition, and is a legit Eastern Conference contender.

In short, the pressure’s on for Pouliot.

“I definitely know the expectations, that’s for sure,” he told NHL.com. “I know I have to be ready when the season comes around, what I have to do to be ready. It’s a little different in that aspect, that’s for sure.

“I’m pretty anxious. I feel like I can take on a bit of a bigger role.”