Ron Hextall cast aside his reputation of being the silent observer who didn’t take many actions yesterday, when he made two major trades to reshape the Penguins’ defense. Within a few hours, the two separate moves made a major impact for the team.
Taken individually, the trades look a bit confounding. Steady John Marino, a 20+ minute defender who is only 25-years old was shipped out to New Jersey for a talented, but floundering blueliner in 22-year old Ty Smith. The Pens also picked up a third round pick, in addition to clearing a significant amount of salary cap space.
That cap space came in handy a few hours later when Pittsburgh veteran acquired defender Jeff Petry from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Mike Matheson. The Pens also nabbed young forward Ryan Poehling and sent over a fourth round pick to the Habs.
Separately, these are two fairly odd deals, even though it was received fairly well where a place like The Athletic fed up the Pens at least a B+ grade (and up to an A-) by various writers for the moves made.
However, if you mix and mash these trades up a bit, not as they went down, but as they fit for the team on the ice, it looks a lot different — and perhaps makes more sense.
Here’s a different breakdown of Saturday’s two trades, taken out of sequence a bit, but in the mind of looking at total assets coming into Pittsburgh versus what the Pens had to give up.
The small stuff
In: A 2023 third round pick (NJD)
Out: A 2023 fourth round pick (PIT)
—Not too much to celebrate, but a minor upgrade in draft stock is still a minor upgrade when combining the draft pick movement over the two different trades. It’s a small win, but a win nonetheless.
Items like these always bring to mind the Pens’ 2013 Brendan Morrow trade. Pittsburgh grabbed the Dallas captain in exchange for former first round pick Joe Morrow. The Pens got a third round pick and swapped back a fifth round pick to the Stars even out the value. That third round pick for Pittsburgh became Jake Guentzel. That huge payoff doesn’t always happen of course, but good things can bubble up when a team makes a small but incremental change in draft position.
(Also, not to be mean to New Jersey, but their third round pick in 2022 was the 70th overall selection. Pittsburgh’s fourth rounder clocked in at 118. If those results carry over to this year, it would be a decent-sized switch, if we’re talking moving from deep in the fourth round up to fairly high in the third round).
In: Ryan Poehling
—In this perspective, the Pens pick up a NHL caliber 23-year old former first round pick for no direct cost. Poehling could use the change of scenery, but let’s not get twisted and pretend like he’s demonstrated a ton of value in the NHL, because he hasn’t. (Outside of his first game in 2019 when he scored a hat trick in his debut, anyways). Poehling brings some promise, and he’s worth seeing what he may have to offer.
And, think about it, who is the best under-25 forward in the Pens’ organization? Filip Hallander? Drew O’Connor? It’s not an impressive collection of talent by any means. Poehling is a player that Montreal gave up on for a reason (he has fizzled out at this point) but he is still fairly young and scored 17 points in 57 NHL games last season. That’s worth taking a further look…As long as expectations are tempered to not think Poehling will pay off immediately in a big way, either. Poehling is a natural center and the Pens already have four better centers (though three of them are 35+ and depth is always good). At NHL minimum of $750k, Poehling is a great piece to just see what happens.
The main points
2nd pair right defense
In: Jeff Petry
Out: John Marino
—This idea fits the mold of Pittsburgh’s off-season. They’ve recently handed out long contracts that will include the twilight years (at some point) for all of Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell and Evgeni Malkin. This isn’t a team that particularly cares about three or four years from now (as they probably shouldn’t at this point). Adding a 34-year old Petry with three years left on a $6.25 million cap hit doesn’t give warm feelings about how this might look towards the end. But for the immediate future, it’s an upgrade over how John Marino has performed in the last two seasons.
I’ve (poorly) Frankensteined the @IneffectiveMath 2021-22 seasons for the two players invoked for direct comparison. Petry is on left below, Marino to the right. The difference in the offensive zone for Montreal’s even strength performance last year with Petry vs. Pittsburgh’s ES play with Marino is striking and indicated a clear upgrade for in-zone offensive play from the right point and also the ability to help get the puck to the front of the net.
It also should be mentioned that extenuating circumstances made last season a down year for Petry. He had to deal with off-ice family issues and the being stripped of his alternate captaincy and just general pressure/circus/drama of a season as it goes off the rails in a place like Montreal. There’s reason to believe a fresh start will help him focus and get away from the turbulence he went through last season. That should be a benefit, or at least is sound in theory.
John Marino has a very high floor and will be a serviceable/solid NHL player for the foreseeable future. That being said, when focusing on the current situation, there is good reason to believe that Jeff Petry in 2022-23 will offer a lot more than Marino actually provided for the Pens in 2021-22 in terms of offense and transition contributions. That last sentence alone is probably the silver bullet and major reason on why Pittsburgh made both of these trades yesterday in order to make what should be a positive change to their defensive group.
Offensive flair from the blueline
In: Ty Smith
Out: Mike Matheson
—Matheson pitched in 11 goals and 31 points last year for the Penguins — and Smith will almost certainly not provide that at the NHL level next season. But Smith is six years younger and indescribably more friendly to the salary cap picture than the $4.875 million Matheson is due through 2026. Smith can go to the AHL without requiring waivers, which Hextall acknowledged is at least an option on the table for the organization dealing with a stacked blue line.
The salary considerations are a big deal too. If Smith sticks in the NHL, the Pens added $7.863 million to their cap yesterday (Smith+Poehling+Petry), while dropping $9.275 million in expenses (Marino+Matheson). That’s a net of just over $1.4 million in savings, where every bit of cap space is important, and negates the fact that Petry is the second biggest individual cap hit on the team right now.
If Smith is sent down to the AHL for next season, then the cap situation improves to become over $2 million in savings for Pittsburgh to the cap based on these transactions, but leaves the left side of the defense with a hole that Marcus Pettersson and PO Joseph will have to bring more to the table than they did last season.
Taking all that in totality, no matter how it shakes out, it makes the Petry salary pickup a LOT easier to stomach for the Penguins in the big picture, at least initially.
Their hope will be a breakout from possibly Ryan Poehling, but more likely Ty Smith, as being the true long-term contributor that comes out of a very interesting Saturday afternoon of seismic trades that will alter the Penguins moving forward.
Ron Hextall put his plans into action, and for better or worse the Pens will have a much different look on the back-end next season. When the two transactions are separated and combined to see the overall impact, it makes a lot more sense to consider the pieces individually and see there is a method to the seeming madness of what went down.