When the Penguins shipped Jamie Oleksiak to the Dallas Stars on Monday, a deal that was a literal reversal of the trade that had sent the towering defenseman to Pittsburgh in the first place, it was a move made with purpose. With extra defensemen clogging up the roster and Oleksiak falling out of favor with coach Mike Sullivan, it was a chance for the Penguins to free up cap space and prepare for a time in the not-too-distant future when Justin Schultz returns to the lineup.
It was also the first of what are sure to be at least a few dominoes that will fall in Pittsburgh.
With the trade deadline in the offing, the Penguins aren’t necessarily where they want to be. Sure, as they wake up Wednesday, they sit in the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot, one point back of third place in the division and only five points back of taking over the Metropolitan-leading New York Islanders for top spot. But Pittsburgh expects more than that. They expect more than sneaking into the post-season. They expect more than showing up to the dance as potential first-round fodder. And it’s for those reasons that you can almost rest assured that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is going to be active over the next few weeks.
By moving Oleksiak, too, Rutherford began the process of finding the flexibility for a club that is, as one might expect, right up against the salary ceiling. In moving out Oleksiak, however, Rutherford has opened up an additional $2.14 million with which to operate, bringing their projected deadline cap space up to $6.76 million, according to CapFriendly. Of course, that’s somewhat misleading, as Schultz’s $5.5 million is due to be off long-term injured reserve and back on the books by mid-February. That will reduce that deadline cap space by somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million dollars.
Saying that, though, is to assume that Rutherford is in any way done moving players out ahead of the deadline, and the reality is that while the Penguins will be buyers in a traditional sense at and ahead of the trade freeze, Pittsburgh won’t be shy about selling a few hands in an effort to bring in more suitable pieces, as well. The player who most fits the bill — and one who is likely as good as gone once the bids begin rolling in — is Derick Brassard.
It’s no secret that since Nick Bonino’s departure as a free agent following the 2017-18 season, the Penguins have been trying to fill the hole at third-line center. It appeared Pittsburgh had done just that ahead of last season’s deadline, too, with the acquisition of Brassard from the Ottawa Senators by way of an intermediary deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. The unfortunate reality, though, is that Brassard’s tenure with the Penguins has bordered on an unmitigated disaster. Brought in as a potential super-third-line center — a 3C with a 2C’s skill level — it’s almost as if Brassard has played down to the role. He is producing at only slightly more than half the points per game rate he was last season and his inability to live up to his billing has almost forced the Penguins to rely more heavily on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
That alone would make Brassard a prime candidate to move at the deadline. But increasing the odds Brassard moves along is that his $3 million cap hit, as well as his pending unrestricted free agency, make him the perfect middle-six addition for a deadline buyer on a budget, particularly a club that believes the pivot can be a better in their system than he is in that of the Penguins.
It’s by moving out Brassard, too, that the Penguins can reengage in the search for a productive third-line center, which is precisely what they. Make no mistake that rental options who fit the bill exist, too. Prime rental candidates could include the Minnesota Wild’s Eric Staal and New York Rangers’ Kevin Hayes.
That might not be the end of the dealing, either. While shipping out Brassard may pay the most dividends, and allow the Penguins the most flexibility, it seems likely that Rutherford will attempt to free up as much cap space as possible in an effort to tweak and tune his lineup. In doing so, he could also give himself the opportunity to add on the backend, which hasn’t been a position of great strength this season and could use some fine tuning, particularly the bottom pairing, which has been manned lately by Juuso Riikola or Marcus Pettersson. Getting some added stability wouldn’t be the worst idea for the Penguins.
No matter how Rutherford and Co. go about business, though, it’s certain that moving Oleksiak along was merely the first in a number of moves that are coming before the Feb. 25 deadline. With Crosby and Malkin still at the top of their game, Kris Letang playing some of the best hockey of his life and a starting goaltender in Matt Murray who has two Stanley Cups to his name and has been among the league’s best since his December return, Pittsburgh’s window remains wide open. But in order to make the most of it, some changes will be necessary.