At some point this summer, the Penguins will trade away a defenseman. Jim Rutherford couldn't have made that clearer in countless remarks, including to this site a month ago, specifically citing a glut on the left side.
And the first steps to date have been to ... keep two guys who could've left.
Thursday, the team re-signed defenseman Juuso Riikola to a one-year, NHL-only contract worth $850,000, preventing him from becoming a restricted free agent this summer. That follows the re-signing last week of another depth defenseman, Chad Ruhwedel, to a two-year contract worth $700,000 each year, preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
No big deals, right?
There's no doubt management was delighted with Riikola's rookie season, his first at any level in North America and one in which he played 37 games with two goals, three assists and a plus-3 rating. When he was in the lineup, to whatever degree a statistic like this can be extrapolated, the Penguins were 22-10-5. He was a seamless fit from the opening drills of training camp, and looked no less confident in all facets upon cracking the lineup.
“Juuso has adjusted to the North American style of hockey seamlessly,” Bill Guerin, Rutherford's assistant GM, said Thursday. “He’s a very confident guy, and he’s also a great skater that moves the puck really well. We expect him to make an even bigger impact this year.”
Riikola's playing time faded in the second half, and he ultimately spent five games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL before being a healthy scratch through the parent club's cameo appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But if Guerin's "even bigger impact" remark is to be taken as more than just signing-day happy stuff, then all concerned might have more than one move to make on one of the NHL's most expensive defense corps: Kris Letang will make $7.25 million in the 2019-20 season, Justin Schultz $5.5 million, Brian Dumoulin $4.1 million, Olli Maatta $4.08 million, Erik Gudbranson $4 million, Jack Johnson $3.5 million, and Marcus Pettersson will be due a significant raise as a restricted free agent after making $794,167 through a rookie season that was far better than Riikola's.
Total cost before Pettersson's pay: $26,483,000.
Maatta has been the presumed trade piece for months now, and that's been confirmed by what I've heard from the Penguins in recent weeks. He's 24, he's got pedigree, and he can bring a real hockey return, ideally addressing needs up front. But even Maatta's exit would leave the NHL depth chart eight deep and, while that sounds wonderful from the perspective of insurance, it isn't terribly cap friendly.
The guess here is that this will take more than one move, maybe involving Johnson, though that won't be easy, as he's due four more years at the same $3.5 million rate. But without Maatta and Johnson, an opening night could look like this ...
... with Ruhwedel as on-location depth.
Is Riikola a top-four defenseman?
That's doubtful in the moment, but it's hardly an outrageous notion. In looking at some of the more successful teams in the ongoing playoffs, youth and mobility has been a priority on the back end. Riikola could go a little headless-chicken at times, but that could be attributed to inexperience. He's eminently capable of having that "even bigger impact."
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