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Updated 20 hours ago
Even when his defense corps was healthy, there was a good chance Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was going to add to his blue line before the NHL trade deadline hit at 3 p.m. March 1.
Now that Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz are out with injuries, it's practically guaranteed.
Here are some factors to keep in mind as the deadline approaches:
In an interview with 93.7 FM on Wednesday, Rutherford gave some personnel updates.
He said Daley had an MRI earlier in the day on his lower-body injury and the results were not yet known.
Schultz, meanwhile, could return from his concussion as soon as Saturday's outdoor game against the Flyers, he said.
Conor Sheary (upper body) could be about a week from returning, and Bryan Rust (upper body) will be out until close to the end of the regular season, Rutherford said.
If Maatta's hand injury will keep him out the rest of the regular season, the Penguins could place him on the long-term injured list and have his salary — about $4 million — to work with under the cap at the deadline.
The cap is not in effect in the playoffs, so Maatta could be activated then without fear of a crunch.
In the absence of any further LTIR designations, the Penguins are so close to the cap that any potential trades would pretty much have to match dollar in with dollar out.
For teams not using LTIR, salary cap space accrues for each day of the season they're under the limit. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes have been so far under the cap every day this season they could add players making a total of $55 million at the deadline if they wanted.
Teams using the LTIR, however, can pick up only players with salaries equal to their LTIR exemption. In other words, the cap space the Penguins have available is a hard limit.
Rutherford has made a concerted effort in the last year or so to hold onto his draft picks to help replenish the prospect pipeline in the future.
There are two reasons that might change this year. First, the 2017 draft generally is considered weak. A first-rounder won't be as a valuable as it was in, say, 2016. Second, the Penguins have eight picks in the seven-round draft, which is plenty. They added a fifth-rounder in exchange for goalie Mike Condon earlier this season.
Expansion draft: Forwards
General managers will be making deadline moves with an eye on June's expansion draft. Teams have two options for their protected lists. They can keep seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or eight skaters and a goalie.
At forward, the Penguins must protect Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel because of the no-movement clauses in their contracts. If they go the seven-forward route, they probably also would want to protect Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and Rust. If they end up adding a forward with years left on his contract at the deadline, it would mean exposing a player the caliber of Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson or Oskar Sundqvist.
First- and second-year pros do not have to be protected, so Sheary and Daniel Sprong are exempt. Sheary is playing his third pro season, but his first year was on an AHL contract, and that doesn't count.
Expansion draft: Defensemen
On defense, the Penguins must protect Kris Letang. After that, if they go the seven-forward route, they would have to choose two from Maatta, Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Derrick Pouliot to protect. If they add a defenseman with years left on his contract, they would be giving the Vegas Golden Knights even more tantalizing blue line options to pluck come draft day.
Expansion draft: Goalies
If Marc-Andre Fleury remains on the roster and hasn't waived his no-movement clause by expansion draft day, the Penguins will be required to protect him, and Matt Murray will be available to the Golden Knights.
There is basically a zero-percent chance of that happening, which is the main impetus behind Fleury trade talk. Keeping him as Murray's backup through the end of this season, however, remains not only a viable option but Rutherford's stated preference. Rutherford told 93.7 FM on Wednesday that Fleury has not requested a trade. Even if he had, the GM said there isn't much demand for goalies in the trade market.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.
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