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Tim Benz: Penguins win trade ... with themselves

June 28, 2018 GMT

When a deal is made in sports, the question often is asked: “Who won the trade?”

However, when you essentially trade your own guys for more of your own guys, that’s a tough question to answer.

This is basically what the Penguins did over the past two days, and it appears to have worked out well.

In essence, the Penguins traded Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick for Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, a conditional draft pick and probably Columbus free-agent defenseman Jack Johnson.

It sure sounds like the Penguins won that trade with the Penguins.

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Wait, what?

For general manager Jim Rutherford, that’s more or less what he did.

First, the decision was made to avoid arbitration and pay Rust $3.5 million against the salary cap for this season (and the next three seasons). That meant the Penguins weren’t going to be able to keep all of their restricted free agents they coveted while also acquiring some much-needed outside help to bolster their blue line.

Rutherford didn’t really trade Sheary and Hunwick. He traded their income statements.

Those statements were going to cost a collective $5.25 million next season. Dealing that expenditure meant Rutherford could keep Sheahan at a slight raise on a new one-year contract ($2.1 million) on top of Rust’s new money for a total of $5.6 million.

So, that’s almost a wash financially.

On top of that, the Penguins acquired the pick and enough remaining cap room to likely retain defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. Plus, they should be able to buy Johnson on the free-agent market for somewhere around a reported $3 million per year.

Despite his struggles in Columbus last season, Johnson has more potential for a career rebound than Hunwick. The ceiling is higher on Johnson for only slightly more money. That risk is worthwhile even if his contract stretches to potentially 2023. With inflation, $3.5 million won’t seem like much cash by then.

While Johnson (11 points) only had one more point than Hunwick last year, he’s two years younger and has a pair of 40-point seasons under his belt. Johnson’s demise and frequent benchings in 2017-18 suggest he’s well on the downside of his career.

But we thought the same things about defensemen Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Justin Schultz and Oleksiak. Each enjoyed a career renaissance with the Penguins.

The hope was Hunwick would have the same experience coming from Toronto last season. It didn’t happen. There were no signs it would next season, either. So why not try for the much greater reward at only a slightly greater risk in Johnson?

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Hunwick is valued so little that one of the conditions on the pick acquired from Buffalo is if the Sabres manage to trade him to someone else, the pick jumps from the fourth to the third round.

Imagine that. Hunwick’s new team is willing to increase the currency going out the door if they can rid him off their books.

Yikes! As troubled as Johnson’s recent seasons have been in Columbus, he carries far more value than that.

Sheary is a different story. He was an important contributor on two Stanley Cup championship squads. He has 37 even-strength goals the past two seasons. He’s only 26. He can play with Sidney Crosby. His $3 million price tag wasn’t exactly onerous, but it was too much for his inconsistency and one-dimensional role.

Sheary scoring 20 goals a season for that kind of cost against the Penguins’ tight cap ceiling wasn’t enough. For Buffalo, Sheary scoring 20 goals seem like good value at that price.

That’s why another condition on that pick is if Sheary gets 20 goals or 40 points, the pick goes from the fourth to the third round.

In the end, former Penguins assistant GM Jason Botterill proved to be the perfect dance partner for Rutherford: a guy who was willing to take on salary without the demand of shoving some back in return.

Rutherford was dying to give away two guys for as close to free as possible, and Buffalo made it happen.

Trading in a salary-capped sport makes for strange bedfellows and divergent goals. In this case for the Penguins, they looked to win a trade — with themselves — by getting nothing in return.

That’s sounds like a complicated road to what should’ve been an easy task, but Rutherford made the Penguins better for the effort.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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