Penguins trade Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick to Sabres as offseason tweaks begin
There’s an element of sad sentimentality in the trade Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made Wednesday, sending Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional draft pick.
Sheary’s NHL debut, two days after the hiring of Mike Sullivan as coach, coincided with the dawn of a new era in Penguins hockey, and now Sheary is moving on.
“He was part of our Cup team. He was here for two Stanley Cups. He’s a good player,” Rutherford said. “We thank him for what he’s done.”
Rutherford, however, is in no position to be anything but pragmatic these days. He made the deal because he had to set himself up for the rest of the offseason.
Sheary was set to make $3 million next season, Hunwick’s salary is $2.25 million and Rutherford had plans for that cap space. He used some of it to sign Riley Sheahan to a one-year contract Wednesday, and he’ll reportedly shell out more of it to add defenseman Jack Johnson once the free-agent signing period begins Sunday.
“It’s a good thing,” Rutherford said. “It means these guys are doing something to get raises.”
The first task Rutherford had to accomplish to make the deal possible was finding a taker for Sheary and Hunwick.
For Sheary, that wasn’t a problem. The 26-year-old winger slumped badly in the playoffs last season, but he scored 41 goals over the last two years, and 37 came at even strength. A team with skilled centers — Buffalo has Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Casey Mittelstadt — would love to have him on a wing.
That Buffalo GM Jason Botterill was the Penguins assistant general manager when the team signed Sheary as an undrafted prospect out of UMass-Amherst in 2013 was a bonus.
Moving Hunwick figured to be harder. The 33-year-old struggled last season with the Penguins. He’s skating is still strong, but there was little else to recommend about his game.
For Sheary alone, the Penguins might have been able to get a second- or-third round draft pick. By adding Hunwick, it became a conditional fourth-rounder. According to reports, it will bump to a third-rounder if Sheary hits 20 goals or 40 points or if Buffalo trades Hunwick.
The draft pick he got in return wasn’t Rutherford’s main motivation to make the deal, anyway. It was all about clearing cap space.
He first used that space to re-sign Sheahan to a one-year deal worth $2.1 million. Rather than risk going to arbitration with Sheahan, the Penguins failed to make him a qualifying offer by Monday’s deadline, gambling they could sign him before he went on the open market Sunday. The gamble paid off. Sheahan will be a mainstay on the team’s fourth line and penalty-killing unit for at least one more year.
“He likes it here,” Rutherford said before the deal was announced. “He understood why we didn’t qualify him. We were in communication the whole time with the agent and him.”
With Sheahan in the fold, the Penguins are about $7.4 million under the cap with 12 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies under contract. That doesn’t include restricted free agent defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who they plan to re-sign.
The next order of business is adding depth and balance to the team’s defense corps. According to Tribune-Review columnist Mark Madden, the Penguins and Johnson have reached an agreement on a five-year deal that can be finalized starting Sunday at noon.
According to computer model projections, Johnson will fetch a salary between $3 and $4 million. If it happens, it will be a controversial signing. Old-school hockey folk like Johnson’s size, physicality and puck skills. Analytics types note he hasn’t finished with a shot-attempt percentage above 50 percent once in his 11-year NHL career.
Either way, Rutherford’s stated intention this offseason was to craft a balanced defense corps in which Kris Letang wouldn’t have to play more than 24 minutes per game. Adding Johnson would accomplish that goal.
“If we could add another defenseman, I think I’d be pretty happy going into opening night,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford could also add another bottom-six forward in free agency, though the development of Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon makes that less of a priority.
“We do have a lot of good NHL wingers, so we could afford to move somebody out,” Rutherford said. “That was part of this deal.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.