Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made one thing abundantly clear after his team exited the post-season in the second round: despite previously winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, despite coming two wins short of advancing to a third-straight Eastern Conference final and despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league, one still assumed to be a championship contender for a few seasons yet, changes were going to be coming. The NHL is a business built on winning, after all, and despite all their highs last season, the Penguins lost ultimately lost when it mattered.
We got our first window into what those changes will look like Wednesday afternoon, too, as the Penguins shipped off two players — one a speedy scorer during the consecutive title runs and the other a free agent targeted to bolster the blueline — have been shuffled off as Pittsburgh freed up a considerable amount of cap space in a salary-dumping deal with the Buffalo Sabres.
The trade itself is one that can easily be called a win-win right from the outset, which is a rarity, to be sure. To the Sabres goes 26-year-old winger Conor Sheary and 33-year-old defenseman Matt Hunwick. In return, the Sabres gave up a conditional 2019 fourth-round selection.
In Sheary, Buffalo lands a diminutive but productive forward, though one who hasn’t been without his detractors. Some have referred to Sheary as a product of playing with Sidney Crosby, the winger’s point production said to be boosted by playing with one of the game’s true greats. And even if there’s some element of truth to that, it’s not as though Sheary’s some beer-bellied rec leaguer whose become a tap-in merchant with ‘Sid the Kid’ as his set-up man. Sheary’s speed can wreak havoc and he brings added depth to the Sabres’ wings. That’s not to mention if he finds a similar fit alongside any of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart or Casey Mittelstadt, Sheary might be able to recapture some of the same form that saw him score 23 goals and 53 points in 61 games in 2016-17.
The addition of Hunwick in the deal, too, gives Buffalo additional help on a blueline that was sorely lacking depth. Gone is youngster Victor Antipin, an anticipated singing out of the KHL, as are Josh Gorges and Justin Falk. Does Hunwick vault onto the top pairing or even into the top four? Maybe. Maybe not. But he skates well and can move the puck up ice quickly. And given the options on the free agent market, it’s a decent acquisition to help an ailing defense.
And even if one or both of Sheary and Hunwick are flops in Buffalo, it will be no great loss. That is the genius of the deal for the Sabres. The fourth-round pick is unlikely to come with the same value as two clear-cut NHL-level skaters that can help this roster in one way or another over the two coming campaigns. In fact, even if the conditions on the deal are enacted — Sheary scores 20 goals or 40 points or Hunwick is traded ahead of the 2019 draft — the third-round Pittsburgh receives still isn’t likely to match the value in having two honest-to-goodness NHLers. So, the real cost for Buffalo is nothing more than $5.25 million in cap space over the next two seasons, a paltry sum for a team that still has upwards of $18 million in spending room.
That cap figure is the key, too, for the Penguins. Moving out two understood commodities for one unknown in the draft pick might seem on the surface like highway robbery for Pittsburgh, but this is all about dollars and cents for Rutherford and Co. It’s a cap-clearing deal that gets more than $5 million off the books and effectively doubles the Penguins’ cap space days before free agency opens. With that disappears any and all of Pittsburgh’s concern about fitting free agent-to-be Riley Sheahan, acquired and utilized as a depth pivot last season, and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak into the salary structure for next season. It also makes the Penguins an awfully intriguing player in free agency when the market officially opens Sunday.
It may not seem like all that much — and truth be told when compared to the $20 million-plus available to more than a dozen teams, maybe it isn’t — but there’s a lot the Penguins can do to improve this summer with $10 million.
The rumblings have been that Pittsburgh could use some of their cap space to target one free agent in particular, Jack Johnson, who would essentially replace Hunwick, albeit at a higher price. How much exactly the Penguins need to spend in order to make that a reality is the biggest question, however, as Johnson at $4 million is much more palatable than the reported $6 million he’s seeking. Should the Penguins choose to pass on Johnson or declare the price too steep, other options exist to strengthen the blueline. More cost-effective options could include Michal Kempny, John Moore, Nick Holden, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey. Even veteran Dan Hamhuis might be able to help solidify blueline depth on a short-term pact.
And if Pittsburgh can stretch a buck further on the backend, there’s an opportunity then to spend up front. Sheary stands to be replaced for pennies on the dollar by one of Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon or Zach Aston-Reese, each of whom had cups of coffee with the big club this past season. And the savings there could translate to a spend on second-tier forward on the market, such as Derek Ryan, Riley Nash or Michael Grabner. Even a top-tier player such as James van Riemsdyk isn’t entirely out of the question if the money is right.
So, if depth throughout the roster is what Rutherford is seeking this off-season, clearing as much cap space as he did Wednesday is certainly one way to address whatever issues he perceives with his roster.