Shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the first round of the playoffs, general manager Jim Rutherford made headlines when he said all options were on the table when it comes to returning the team to championship-contender status.
One of the items on his offseason to-do list wasn’t optional, however. It was mandatory.
He had to move out a defenseman with a sizeable contract, and that trade came to pass Saturday night when he sent Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round draft pick.
“I think we all knew something had to give at that position and cap-wise,” Rutherford said. “That’s what led to making this decision.”
If the Penguins hadn’t moved a defenseman, they would have had nine players on one-way contract at the position and would have been a few million over the projected $83 million salary cap.
Maatta makes a little over $4 million annually on a contract with three years remaining. Kahun makes $925,000 on the last year of his entry-level deal.
That didn’t make the decision to trade Maatta any easier for Rutherford personally. Maatta, the fourth-longest-tenured player on the team, was one of the most affable players in the locker room.
“He’s had success here,” Rutherford said. “He’s been a good player. He’s won two Cups. He’s dealt with adversity. He’s a wonderful person. These last couple of days have been hard on me.”
There are a few reasons Maatta was the odd man out on defense.
First, he slid to the fourth spot on the left side of the team’s depth chart on the blue line by the end of last season. After missing almost six weeks with a shoulder injury late in the year, he was a healthy scratch for the last three games of the playoffs against the Islanders.
Second, he still had trade value. It would be difficult for Rutherford to move a defenseman like Jack Johnson because he’s 32 with four years left on a contract that pays him $3.25 million annually. Maatta, conversely, is 24 with two Stanley Cup rings in his pocket and his best hockey not all that far behind him.
He had enough value to fetch Kahun, a 23-year-old who had 13 goals and 37 points as a rookie last season. Thirty-five of those points came at even strength.
Rutherford said his objective in acquiring Kahun wasn’t necessarily to improve his team’s speed, but it helps. He said he liked the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder’s ability to play all three forward positions up and down the lineup.
“He’s got good speed,” Rutherford said. “He has good hands. He’s a skilled player. Second year, albeit he’s going to have to adjust to a new team, I would suspect he could take an even bigger step. Coming off 13 goals in his first year is a good year for him.”
He remains intent on trying to improve the roster.
“I haven’t changed my position on what I said at the end of the season,” Rutherford said. “We had a decent regular season. A hundred points is a good mark to get to, but as we all know, we finished with a very disappointing playoffs. If there’s good changes to make, then we’re going to do that.”
He’s just not sure what moves will present themselves.
“Usually, you do have to get creative to make trades now. So we’ll see,” Rutherford said. “There’s been lots of talk since our last game. There’s a lot of things out there. You just don’t know what somebody might come back with, come back with an idea that might help both teams. If one of those comes along, we’ll make another change or two.”