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The plan when the Penguins traded Phil Kessel just days prior to free agency on July 1 was to always turn the $1.9 million in cap space created from the trade into a $2.5-$3.5 million per season gritty two-way winger as the Penguins are all-in on this belief of subtracting an elite talent in Phil Kessel for what the Penguins feel will be a more balanced, two-way lineup with a bunch of 10-13 goals, 30-40 point players that the Penguins internally believe will outweigh the 90+-80+ points Phil Kessel netted them the last two seasons.

“We felt so strong about Tanev that we were willing to go as far as we had to go to make sure we got him,” GM Jim Rutherford said on July 1 in defending the Penguins going six years for a bottom-6 level player. “You never know with any player, the term of the contract, whether it works, how long it’s going to work, but it’s what you have to do to get the player.”

The $3.5 million a year commitment to Tanev has put the Penguins right back in a situation of where they have to move a body or two out to get all their ducks in a row with RFA’s Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger unsigned who will cost around $4 million to resign if the Penguins do a bridge deal with Pettersson. If the cap space is there, there is strong interest in the organization to do a deal in the 3-4 year range for Pettersson who the Penguins believe is evolving into a 2nd-level pairing defenseman.

Since the Tanev signing, there’s been one primary focus in the organization in trying to clear enough salary to get the roster settled for the start of the season.


That’s trying to see if there’s a deal out there for Jack Johnson before having to explore Plan B & Plan C Options, routes they prefer they don’t have to go like trading Bryan Rust, but time will tell if they have to.

The Penguins early last week started going to teams that were in on Johnson last summer. As reported here in the past, Pittsburgh negotiated against themselves when signing Johnson last July.

Per multiple sources with knowledge of the talks, Johnson was in substantive talks with three primary teams:

Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim.

When Pittsburgh and Johnson’s reps Pat Brisson and Jim Nice moved forward in the negotiating period to finalize a five year deal with the Penguins (a six year deal was also being mulled at the time), Anaheim had a one year offer worth around $4 million on the table, while Detroit was discussing a two year deal with Johnson’s reps in the same neighborhood, but Detroit was only going to be an option for Johnson if Mike Green signed elsewhere.

Anaheim is the one team in particular that pursued Johnson in free agency last summer that Pittsburgh has been engaged with in trade talks surrounding Johnson since the Tanev signing.

Word is Anaheim does indeed have interest in adding Johnson to their blueline, league sources say, — GM Bob Murray has long been a fan of Johnson and Daryl Sutter being added to the organization has only added fuel to fire — but there would obviously be a sweetener to come from Pittsburgh’s end that would have to be included for Anaheim taking on the contract.

Penguin sources continue to say that Rutherford always has no qualms of giving out deals like he did for Jack Johnson and Brandon Tanev with significant term for low level players because he operates with the mindset that you can always find a way to trade players who make under $4-$4.5 million per season.

That could indeed play out with Johnson here. There is certainly some smoke between Pittsburgh and Anaheim and buzz out of the Penguins organization is more than one team has kicked tires on Johnson in the last week as a Johnson trade despite the four years remaining at a steep price for a No. 7 level defenseman has a chance of happening and soon.

Another tidbit on an organizational desire to move on from Johnson after one season is there has been a pretty strong consensus to emerge among the coaching staff and management that Juuso Riikola deserves to start the season as the third pairing left D.

The coaching staff is also said to be comfortable to start the season with Chad Ruhwedel as their No. 7 if the team parts ways with Johnson and are pleased with the call-up depth in the likes of Zach Trotman and David Warsofsky, sources say.

“I’m not saying it’s the best defense in the league. But it’s a solid defense, and it’s a good-enough defense,” Rutherford said on July 1. “(Juuso) Riikola, going into his second year, certainly we feel he’ll be better. He’ll step up. He’ll push for one of those regular spots. So, at this point in time, I’m comfortable with our defense.