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Making sense of the swap that sent Pearson to Penguins, Hagelin to Kings

Pittsburgh gets a one-time 20-goal scorer in Tanner Pearson, while Los Angeles gets an injection of speed in Hagelin. But why did the two teams make the swap and who wins the deal?

Jim Rutherford was to be taken at his word when he said that if things in Pittsburgh didn’t turn around in the near future, changes were coming. And hours after the Penguins announced the GM had inked a three-year contract extension, his reward for fine-tuning a team that has won two Stanley Cups in his four seasons at the helm, Rutherford made good on his promise by putting the finishing touches on a one-for-one swap that sent Carl Hagelin to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Tanner Pearson.

The trade, which also saw the Penguins retain $250,000 of Hagelin’s $4-million cap hit and makes the swap a dollar-in, dollar-out deal for both sides, comes in the midst of one of the worst slumps Rutherford has seen during his tenure as Pittsburgh’s GM. Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Devils, which likely was less the catalyst and more the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to a move to shake up the roster, was the Penguins’ sixth defeat in seven games.

In Pearson, 26, Pittsburgh brings aboard a one-time 20-goal winger who was probably among the players most in need of a change of scenery in this young season. The 30th-overall pick by the Kings in 2012, Pearson rose to prominence as part of Los Angeles’ 2013-14 Stanley Cup winning club and became a steady contributor for the club across the past four seasons, scoring 66 goals and 136 points in 283 games from 2014-15 through to the end of last season. But the offensive woes that have plagued the Kings early this season hit no one harder than Pearson, whose lone point in 17 games is an assist in the first game of the campaign.

“He's off to a slow start this year, but he's had a good career,” Rutherford said, according to the Penguins. “I believe a change will be good for him and he'll be a good fit for us. He's a little younger than Carl, (and) he’s locked into a contract for a couple of years that we like.”

Indeed, Pearson does have a palatable $3.75-million cap hit on a deal that carries him through to the end of the 2020-21 season, and such a deal provides the Penguins with a bit more cost certainty than they were getting with Hagelin, whose contract was set to expire at season's end. The hope, too, is that bringing Pearson into the fold in Pittsburgh, where he has potential to skate in the top six with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, can help the prime-aged winger rediscover his scoring touch. He’s a career 11 percent shooter and greater opportunity with a higher-scoring outfit could make Pearson a sneaky-good acquisition — and the Penguins the clear-cut winners of this deal — if he gels with either Crosby or Malkin. 

As for the Kings’ addition of Hagelin, the idea, said GM Rob Blake, was to shake things up and add some speed, an asset that was sorely lacking in Los Angeles, to the attack.

“Our team is obviously not in a position that we are comfortable with in terms of how we are playing,” Blake said in a release. “This is a change to our line-up that gives us an additional amount of speed. With Carl Hagelin his number one asset is speed and getting to holes, and we think he will play a big role on the penalty kill for us going forward.” 

The true upside for Los Angeles, however, isn’t found in Hagelin’s acquisition, which is abundantly clear. As a 30-year-old winger, he makes an already veteran-laden team that much older, and Hagelin hasn’t exactly been a high-quality point producer on an offensive-minded Penguins team. In fact, his past two full seasons have been arguably the worst of his career, with Hagelin scoring a combined 16 goals and 53 points in 142 games across the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. By comparison, Pearson scored 15 goals and 40 points in 82 games last season.

It seems what the Kings are really targeting in acquiring Hagelin is an expiring asset that can be flipped down the road. A member of the Penguins’ back-to-back Cup winning teams, Hagelin has shown some offensive spark in the playoffs — 10 goals and 21 points in 48 games — that could make him an intriguing asset come the trade deadline, one a contending team might be willing to acquire at the price of a mid-range draft pick.

And beyond that, Hagelin provides financial flexibility for the Kings. It’s unlikely Los Angeles will be interested in retaining Hagelin’s services beyond this season, and with his $3.75 million — remember, $250,000 was retained by Pittsburgh — coming off the books, it affords the Kings some additional cap space come next summer. Los Angeles was in dire need of wiggle room, too, as they were projected to be little more than $3.5 million under the cap come next summer, though that’s assuming no rise in the spending limit. Shedding Hagelin’s salary will inch the Kings closer to $7 million in spending room, and that’s cap space that can be utilized not just to patch holes, but to retain restricted free agents-to-be Alex Iafallo and Adrian Kempe.

It’s likely this isn’t the last we’ve heard from either team, however. Losers of 10 of their past 13 games, the Kings are in desperate need of rejuvenation, and moving Pearson could be the first of several moves Los Angeles makes with an eye towards the future. And with Rutherford acknowledging he’s beginning to lose his patience, the Penguins may only be a few losses away from further roster shuffling, particularly given Pittsburgh's championship window is still open.

"This could be the start of more changes,” Rutherford said. “We'll see how it goes.”

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