Over the weekend, two former powers made a swap that may not have been high-stakes, but interesting nonetheless. The Pittsburgh Penguins dealt two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks for Olympic silver medallist and right winger Dominik Kahun, plus a fifth-rounder in 2019.
On the surface, the Penguins save some cap space and gain flexibility with Kahun, who has one more year on his contract worth $925,000 before he is up for restricted free agency. Maatta, on the other hand, gives the Hawks some certainty, as he is locked up for three more seasons at $4.1 million before he is eligible for unrestricted free agency. But what are these teams up to when it comes to the big picture?
The Penguins are coming off a first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders and the futures cupboard is bare. Pittsburgh only has one pick in the first three rounds of the draft (a first-rounder), so things aren’t going to get better overnight. There is rampant talk surrounding veteran sniper Phil Kessel getting traded, but the right winger has a no-trade clause that is gumming up the works. Now, with Maatta gone, the Penguins only have one defenseman under the age of 27, in Marcus Pettersson.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both on the other side of 30 and eventually, they will not be able to pace the Penguins anymore. Because they are both true superstars, their effectiveness will last longer than that of a normal player, but is that four years, five? Only three? It’s tough to say. Both centers have played a ton of hockey in their careers and both have dealt with injuries. As it is now, Pittsburgh cannot be completely discounted from making one more Cup run thanks to those guys, but with every passing year it gets less likely. Getting swatted by the Islanders seemed like a dark omen.
GM Jim Rutherford, a man with enough rings to be given the benefit of the doubt, brought in Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson as part of his blueline remake and though they don’t seem like the answer, the St. Louis Blues did just win the title thanks to a defense corps that had a ton of size and some decent snarl.
As for the Blackhawks, it has now been two seasons without playoffs and four without a post-season series victory (the 2015 Stanley Cup title). Having said that, Chicago was feistier than expected this past season thanks to Patrick Kane turning back the clock with a Hart-worthy performance and Jonathan Toews returning to point-per-game status. Toss in the ascension of Alex DeBrincat and the Dylan Strome breakthrough and you’ve got a nice little narrative on your hands.
Of course, it still wasn’t enough to make it into the Western Conference bracket - Chicago had a porous defense and sub-par goaltending. A healthy Corey Crawford helps the netminding, but given his injury history, how long can that be counted on, if at all? The defense is anchored by the mega-contracts of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, which still have years to go, despite the players’ advanced age (in hockey terms).
My theory? Maatta is a bridge. The Blackhawks have assembled a very impressive list of defense prospects, but they won’t be the drivers just yet. Henri Jokiharju is already in the NHL, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. Ian Mitchell is returning to the University of Denver for one more season, while Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin both progressed nicely in junior this past season. Chad Krys saw his first pro action as a member of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
So help is on the way, but it won’t be immediate. Chicago’s best-case scenario is that Strome, DeBrincat and perhaps whomever the Hawks draft third overall this week (Alex Turcotte? Dylan Cozens?) take over the offense for Kane and Toews in a few years, while Keith and Seabrook cede the blueline to any number of young stars - and let’s not forget that 27-year-old Erik Gustafsson had 60 points from the back end this year.
While the Hawks and Penguins are no longer the favorites in their respective conferences, they clearly haven’t given up on the future. Whether the Maatta-Kahun deal helps them out in that quest will be something to watch for as the picture crystallizes.
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