When the 2013-14 season ended for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was evident that changes were coming. Pushing the eventual Eastern Conference champions to a Game 7 wasn't enough to save the jobs of Dan Bylsma or Ray Shero, and ownership saw fit to bring in Jim Rutherford and his new vision for the franchise.
Naturally, one of the first questions that arose was how Rutherford would change the core of the organization. Which players would be moved in an attempt to shake up the culture and on-the-ice product?
We didn't know much about how the former Carolina Hurricanes general manager was going to run the ship—only that there was a need to shed some salary for the sake of adding more depth. Both James Neal and Kris Letang saw their names floated in trade rumors during the early parts of the offseason, and the former would eventually be traded to the Nashville Predators.
Neal getting moved wasn't the surprising part. He'd been in rumor roundups all season and didn't have a no-movement clause that handcuffed management. What was surprising: Rutherford didn't get much cap relief in the Neal trade.
That's given way to some speculation that the Penguins might not be done shaking up the core. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will retire in Pittsburgh unless they demand a trade, so that's a combined $18.2 million against the cap until 2022 for two players who aren't going anywhere.
Since Nos. 87 and 71 are more or less untouchable, if the Penguins want to dump a big contact, Letang would be their only other option. Recent injury issues might cause some folks also view him as a declining asset, and he'll be making $7.25 million a season against the cap until 2022 as well. Hooks Orpik of PensBurgh broke it down nicely:
Far too often Letang has been off the ice. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Letang has missed (87) almost as many regular season games as he's played (123) due to various injuries including multiple concussions and of course the stroke from this past January. Doctors seem assured it was a freak occurrence that may be in his rear view mirror for good, but no one can say if it'll be a cloud lingering over his head.
With that in mind—and even though Neal has already been moved—should the Penguins trade Letang sometime this season? It'd all depend on the return, of course, but the odds seem good that Rutherford would come out on the short end of any deal involving the 27-year-old. High-end offensive defenders are tough to come by, and only Erik Karlsson has scored more points from the blue line since 2010-11.
There's no denying that Letang had a rough 2013-14 campaign. He injured his knee in training camp and then suffered a stroke in February. Letang bounced back (amazingly) 10 weeks later, but it's tough to join a team that's headed full steam towards the playoffs. No rhythm was ever established, and Letang struggled to keep pace during the postseason.
All that seems to be history now, and a full summer to train should catapult Letang back into the 50-point range. That's the biggest knock against trading the defenseman. He produces more points than just about anyone in his position, and Rutherford doesn't have glaring holes that desperately need patching. You don't trade a player like Letang to free up a few bucks for a third-line wing.
Pittsburgh's roster is still in flux. More trades are probably coming down the pipe, and Rutherford will continue to push the Penguins into a new era fueled by possession metrics and up-tempo play.
Moving Letang wouldn't help advance either of those two goals, mostly because there's only a handful of guys who could replace him, and no one is capable of providing an in-house answer at this juncture. Olli Maatta was impressive as a rookie, and Simon Despres or Derrick Pouliot could eventually become solid contributors on offense.
But they will not score to the same degree as Letang. At this point, the benefits of retaining the defender far outweigh the potential positives of a shakeup. Barring any ridiculously one-sided trade offers, the Penguins wouldn't be a better team following a move. That should be the goal for Rutherford: retooling without overcorrecting. He's excelled in that so far.
A Letang trade would be an overcorrection for a team that really isn't that far off from competing with the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the East.
If you look at the deals GMs are getting for star players, the gains just don't seem to be that great. Getting fair value for an established star is tough, and it'd be a foolish task for Rutherford to undertake just to shave a few million off the payroll. If there was a replacement lined up and there was a chance to make the move, then so be it.
As things stand, Letang ought to be a member of the Penguins when the 2014-15 season opens in October.