Options for Pittsburgh Penguins Defence Retool in Free Agency

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Star of Pittsburgh Penguins Defence, Kris Letang, skates away as New York Islanders celebrate a goal in Game 2.
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - APRIL 12: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins returns to the bench as the New York Islanders celebrate a third period goal by Josh Bailey #12 of the New York Islanders in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on April 12, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A Pittsburgh Penguins defence retool isn’t just wishful thinking for this offseason, it’s mandatory if they want to go far next season. The Penguins seem to have already realized this. Over the weekend, they sent defenseman Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks. In return, they get a bit of cap space, Dominik Kahun, and a fifth-round draft pick.

This needs to be just the start, though. Reworking the defence has been a long time coming, as the Penguins look to become a Stanley Cup-caliber team again. Fixing what has been a fairly inconsistent, and unhealthy, defence would easily spark the Penguins far into the playoffs.

Looking at How to Fix the Pittsburgh Penguins Defence

What’s Next Following the Maatta Trade

The next step in this process should be getting out of the Jack Johnson contract in any way possible. He was a massive detriment to the team last season. His numbers were very poor (especially his CF% at 45.8%) and he didn’t pass the eye test at all. He would be caught flat-footed in his own zone quite a bit and he even struggled to make the first pass up the ice (which was something Jim Rutherford lamented him for when he got signed). If the Penguins can get out of that contract, not only will they have more cap space, but they get rid of a player who drags the team down. They also open the door to getting a massive upgrade at his position so that Justin Schultz can have an adequate partner. Here’s a look at a couple of options the Penguins have.

Options for Pittsburgh Penguins Defence Retool

Signing Jake Gardiner

This definitely isn’t one of the likeliest things to happen for the Penguins but it would make their top four very scary. Obviously, Johnson would have to be moved in this scenario and perhaps another player (Bryan Rust maybe?) to make this work as the Penguins are always up against the cap. Gardiner is going to want a long-term deal with an AAV of over $6M per, probably closer to $7M or even higher. Gardiner is the best defenseman on the market now that Erik Karlsson has signed back with the San Jose Sharks.

Upgrading from Johnson to Gardiner would be like buying a new Corvette after having a used Toyota. Gardiner is coming off a 30 point season, where he missed 20 games with an injury. Despite that, he was still over 50% for CF%. He also managed to play in all 82 games in the two seasons prior to this one. In the 2016-2017 season, he had nine goals and 43 points. In the 2017-2018 season, he had five goals and 52 points. The 52 points were a career high. He’s proven to be a great depth player for the power-play, netting at least 11 power-play assists in each of the three seasons prior to last. Overall, Gardiner is a very well-rounded defenceman. He’s quick in his own end, making the breakout simple, and is an elite playmaker when on the offensive side.

A top four of Brian DumoulinKris Letang and Jake Gardiner-Justin Schultz would be the best top four the Penguins have had in quite awhile. Even if it’s not the likeliest of outcomes, Pittsburgh still has the flexibility to possibly get it done.

Sign Alex Edler to a short-term deal

This wouldn’t be the signing to get very excited about like Gardiner but it would still be an upgrade over what they have. Edler has been playing top minutes his whole career and even at age 33, he’s still putting up great offensive numbers. His last two seasons have seen him put up 34 points in each season. He also scored ten goals for the Canucks this season, which is the most he’s had since the 2011-2012 season. He scored those goals despite missing 26 games with reoccurring injuries. Edler can bring some help to the second power play as well. He ran Vancouver’s power play this past season and has for some time. He had four power play goals this season and 17 total points on the power play.

Despite all that good, he’s still below 50% for CF% (and has been for the last four seasons). Part of that has to do with the Canucks not being a very good possession team during the season and also them just being bad overall. As a team overall, the Canucks ranked 25th this season in possession at 48.1%. He also has played top pairing minutes but he wouldn’t have to do that in Pittsburgh with Letang and Dumoulin doing the honours.

Getting Edler on a two-year-deal would be the only way to really make this work as he is in his mid 30’s now. Pittsburgh can’t be handing out long-term deals to those kinds of players because eventually, they will slow down. Edler is steady in both the offensive and defensive zone and would definitely help Schultz rebound from last season where he didn’t look comfortable next to Johnson. It would also make the Pittsburgh Penguins defence look a bit more prudent.

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