ith only a few weeks left before the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Edmonton Oilers GM Craig MacTavish is working against the clock to find a deal to move his first round pick. So when the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the hiring of GM Jim Rutherford, Oilers fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.
The Oilers need a serious infusion of skill on defence to dig their way out of the bottom of the Western Conference and adding an established NHL quality defenceman is the fastest way to accomplish this. But any team with a defenceman of that high quality would never consider moving him without asking for a King’s ransom in return, right? Wrong.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are desperate to find the space to resign pending UFA defenceman Matt Niskanen before July 1 when 29 other teams will be able to raise what will already be a very high asking price. But with over $55 Million in cap space being used by just 14 players, the Pens will need to shed a considerable amount of salary just to complete their full roster, let alone overpay to keep Niskanen. Given that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby aren’t going anywhere, the next largest contract would be Kris Letang’s 8 year, $58 Million behemoth that is set to begin in the 2014-15 season.
This season, Letang made headlines everywhere for all the wrong reasons after suffering a stroke in late January that was later linked to a whole in the wall of his heart. Amazingly, Letang was able to return to practice by mid-March and then to full game action soon after. But despite the fact he was making considerable improvements toward the end of his season, Letang failed to get all the way back to his usual standard of play before the Pens were eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Although medically Letang has been completely cleared, his trade value has taken a serious hit with questions of his longevity now overshadowing his abilities, and the Pens have no choice but to purge a significant amount of salary.
This may very well be the Oilers only chance to get an NHL caliber defenceman without giving up a significant portion of their future assets.
Considering the uncertainty surrounding Letang, it may not take much more than the Oilers first round pick(third overall), Nail Yakupov and the rights to Justin Schultz to complete the deal. This would fill the Oilers need for a star defenceman to balance their roster and would allow the Pens to stay cap compliant while having more leverage to resign Niskanen, and fill roster space with inexpensive NHL ready players.
Yakupov has shown flashes of brilliance but has so far failed to live up to the hype of being a first overall draft pick, though he would undoubtedly benefit from the mentoring of fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin. And over the past two seasons, Schultz has demonstrated his ability to compete and contribute at the NHL level and has earned a raise from his current $925,000 base salary. But even factoring that raise, Schultz would not even come close to the $7.25 Million cap hit Letang will hold.
However, that massive $58 Million contract also includes a modified no trade clause in which Letang can provide a list of 12 teams he cannot be traded to.
Letang has been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in Pittsburgh, having won in 2009, and has regularly been around the top of the NHL standings over his seven year career with the Pens. But the organization has suffered several mystifyingly bad playoff derailments in recent years and are currently in a state of limbo after the firing of GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma following the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Are the recent struggles and uncertainty enough for Letang to allow the Pens new GM to ship him to the NHL equivalent of Siberia? Will Letang welcome the opportunity to return to his home country and lead the revitalization of a historic franchise? Or will he refuse to waive his no trade clause to a team in the midst of a rebuild, opting for an established contender instead?