Two winters ago, when Pierre-Olivier Joseph started off his NHL career with that impressive three-week run, it looked as if the young defenseman might force the Penguins to promptly clear the logjam on the left side of their blue line.
His brilliant play soon fizzled out. And the new front office of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke sent Joseph back to the American Hockey League for more seasoning. With Brian Dumoulin, Mike Matheson and Marcus Pettersson still in Pittsburgh this past season, the lanky lefty played just four NHL games, all in November.
While surely a bit disappointing for Joseph, it turned out to be a blessing. He logged a ton of ice time and experienced high-leverage situations, took strides as a player and emerged as a leader during Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s playoff push.
Joseph, about to turn 23 on July 1, politely told the Post-Gazette in April that he believed he was ready to be an NHL regular. He’s not wrong. So the time has come for the Penguins to clear that logjam and open up a lineup spot for him.
Dumoulin didn’t look quite like himself last season, then a knee injury knocked him out of the playoffs. But the Penguins remain reluctant to part with him. If anything, his absence in the New York Rangers series was a reminder of his value.
Matheson didn’t mesh well with Kris Letang on the top pair with Dumoulin out. But he took another step forward last season and was their second-best defenseman. Yeah, he may still be a tad bit overpaid. But he is worth keeping around.
That leaves Pettersson as the lefty most likely to get traded this summer.
Acquiring Pettersson from the Anaheim Ducks in 2018 was one of Jim Rutherford’s final savvy trades as Penguins general manager. But the bet Rutherford made a year later, signing Pettersson to a long-term deal with an annual average value of just over $4 million, has not paid off. Pettersson’s play has plateaued.
After a down year in 2020-21, Pettersson started last season quite strong. Prior to Jan. 1, he was among the NHL’s best blue-liners in on-ice metrics such as expected goals percentage and shots allowed from the inner slot, per Sportlogiq.
He admittedly struggled in the season’s second half and spent a few games in the press box. When he was in the lineup, his average time on ice dipped. But despite some high-profile lapses, his peripheral numbers after Jan. 1 were OK.
Pettersson has an active stick that leads to a lot of intercepted passes and stick checks. Last season, he was in the top quarter of the league in denials at the blue line, per Sportlogiq. He is nothing special as a passer, but far from a problem.
The 26-year-old Swede also hasn’t made an impact in either phase of special teams here. But he would be a fine fourth or fifth defenseman for some teams. Not only is he typically a solid defender at 5-on-5, he’s also a swell human being.
The problem here is not the player. It’s his fit in the roster-building puzzle.
Trading Pettersson would benefit the Penguins in a couple of ways. One, it would create an opportunity for Joseph to settle into a regular role, with Mark Friedman under contract as a fallback plan. And two, it would free up about $3 million in cap space to help them attempt to sign Letang, Evgeni Malkin and others.
They are indeed open to moving Pettersson and his contract, which has three years left. But when discussing his trade value, suitors will likely ask them, “If this guy is so good, why did you make him a healthy scratch down the stretch?”
As such, the Penguins should pounce on any opportunity to flip Pettersson for a pick or prospect, even if the return is modest. Some other teams may even view his contract as a negative asset. And cap space around the league will largely evaporate by the end of July 13, the first day of the NHL’s free agency period.
Find a palatable Pettersson deal and give Joseph his chance to sink or swim.
Joseph, who grew up outside Montreal and in recent summers worked out there with Letang, is not considered by draft analysts to be a blue-chip prospect. His NHL ceiling might be the second pair with time on a second power-play unit.
He fits the mold of the type of defenseman the Penguins have coveted with Mike Sullivan as head coach. Joseph has a good reach at 6-foot-2. He skates well for that height. He has the ability to be a plus puck-mover on the breakout if he takes what is there. And he can chip in offensively from the point or off the rush.
Plus, Joseph is a bright kid with an infectious smile and a good work ethic.
Before last season, his inconsistency on the ice was perhaps more of a concern than his inability to pack on pounds in the gym. That was something that turned off some NHL scouts prior to his draft year, when he was picked 23rd overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2017. But Joseph smoothed out his game last season.
In 61 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he scored 10 goals and tallied 33 points. Both totals exceeded what he had in 75 games at the AHL level over the previous two seasons. His plus-minus rating jumped from minus-14 in 2020-21 to plus-8 last season. Joseph had five points and a plus-2 rating in six playoff games.
And now the time has come to get an extended look at Joseph at the NHL level. For it to happen, something must give. Trading Pettersson is most practical.