Rumors

Rumor Roundup: Is trading Kris Letang or James Neal the Penguins' next move?

Lyle Richardson
By:

Kris Letang (Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

Rumors

Rumor Roundup: Is trading Kris Letang or James Neal the Penguins' next move?

Lyle Richardson
By:

It'd be shocking if Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin were dealt, but don't be surprised if Kris Letang or James Neal (or Chris Kunitz or Paul Martin) find themselves on a new team by the time the puck drops next season...And is Thomas Vanek really a good fit with the Minnesota Wild?

Five years after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, another early playoff exit has led to the firing of GM Ray Shero. It could also result in roster changes in the coming weeks.

Prior to the announcement about Shero, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnists Rob Rossi and Dejan Kovacevic suggested superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin deserve their fair share of blame but don't see either player being traded. Rossi notes both players are under lengthy, expensive contracts with no-trade clauses. He concludes Crosby and Malkin will return, “but the faces around them could be different.”

Josh Yohe suggests the Penguins need to get younger. While their core players aren't old (most are in their late 20s), they're not as young as they used to be. Yohe considers it unrealistic to attempt to address that need through free agency. Pending UFA Defenseman Matt Niskanen, 27, could depart, while 26-year-old winger James Neal will be the subject of trade rumors this summer.

Unless Crosby or Malkin want out, they're not going anywhere, but it could take time for new management to find them suitable new linemates. Teams seeking a physical scoring winger will have interest in Neal, who has another four years and $20 million remaining on his contract. His limited no-trade clause doesn't kick in until 2015-16, giving the Penguins a wide range of trade destinations should they shop him this summer.

NBC Sports' Jason Brough believes now is the right time to explore the trade market for blueliner Kris Letang, who's about to start an eight-year, $58-million contract.

While acknowledging Letang's health issues (including a heart condition that sidelined him for several weeks this season) and defensive struggles, Brough observes the 27-year-old averages 25 minutes per game and since 2010-11 only Ottawa's Erik Karlsson has more points-per-game among defensemen. Brough points out the need around the league for blueliners with a right-handed shot, which could enhance Letang's value. He also notes the Penguins have two promising blueliners in Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot who could potentially fill Letang's shoes.

While there could be a market for Letang, his health concerns (that also include a concussion history), expensive new contract (with a limited no-trade clause listing 12 teams to which he won't accept a trade) and defensive issues still hampers his trade value. Even if a suitor offering a reasonable return can be found, the Penguins could be forced to pick up part of Letang's salary to facilitate a deal.

Another trade candidate is Chris Kunitz, who's starting a three-year, $11.5-million contract in July that lacks a no-trade clause. He tallied 35 goals and 68 points this season, but he'll turn 35 in September, which hurts his trade value.

Defenseman Paul Martin would also attract interest in the trade market. He has only one year at $5 million remaining on his contract, but also holds a limited no-trade clause. If Niskanen departs via free agency, the Penguins will likely retain Martin.

Some Penguins fans would prefer to see goalie Marc-Andre Fleury traded or bought out. Based on his improved play compared to recent playoff years, he can't be made the scapegoat this time for his team's playoff failure. Given the limited options to replace him via trade or free agency, they're better off hanging onto him for the final year of his contract.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE WILD?
The Minnesota Wild were also a second-round playoff casualty. Unlike the Penguins, the Wild are a team on the rise: they more than held their own against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Still, GM Chuck Fletcher has some roster concerns to address prior to next season.

Topping the list is their goaltending. Veteran Niklas Backstrom was sidelined again by abdominal surgery, while Josh Harding was once again knocked out of the lineup by multiple sclerosis symptoms. Rookie Darcy Kuemper is a restricted free agent and must be re-signed. Trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov filled in admirably down the stretch and in the playoffs, but he's a UFA and unlikely to be retained.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo notes the Wild cannot use a compliance buyout for Backstrom because he was signed after the new CBA was implemented, plus he's ineligible for a regular buyout owing to his injury status. Because Backstrom falls under the “over-35” rule, if he retires this summer the Wild will still be on the hook for his full cap hit. Russo speculates the Wild will try to trade him at the cost of absorbing part of his salary, but acknowledged his injury woes, age and modified no-trade clause makes him a tough sell.

Chad Graff of The Pioneer Press reports the Wild must add a scorer, noting the long-held belief around the league they'll pursue Montreal Canadiens winger Thomas Vanek through free agency in July. Though Vanek has ties to the Wild through former Buffalo Sabres teammate Jason Pominville and makes his off-season home in Minnesota, Graff wonders if he'll agree to a hometown discount.

Though the Wild have more than $22 million in projected cap space, Russo cautions Fletcher must ensure he has enough space to re-sign restricted free agents like Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker this summer, as well as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula next summer.

If Vanek won't commit to a reasonable deal, Fletcher will be forced to consider more affordable options. Those could include Mike Cammalleri, Jarome Iginla, Ales Hemsky, Milan Michalek, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Moulson, though the latter's offensive struggles in the post-season likely mean he’s played his final game with the Wild.

Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).

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Rumor Roundup: Is trading Kris Letang or James Neal the Penguins' next move?