NHL trade grades: Penguins narrowly win Dmitry Kulikov trade, for now

The trade

Penguins get: Defender Dmitry Kulikov

Ducks get: Forward Brock McGinn, third-round pick

Sean Gentille: All we can do here – the only fair and reasonable thing – is to judge each deal based on the available real-world context. Is a team in better shape than they were beforehand, or are they not?

Right now, about 90 minutes before the deadline, Ron Hextall’s Pittsburgh Penguins are in better shape after this deal than they were beforehand.

It has nothing to do with Kulikov, a 31-year-old lefty who has been completely bowled over by top-pair minutes with the bottomless Ducks. He’s a substitute on a good day, or at least he should be.

Where Hextall scored a narrow win, perhaps his last of the season, is in dispatching McGinn’s contract. He would have carried a $2.75 million AAV for each of the next two years, and had been buried in the AHL after Hextall’s frantic salary dump party ahead of the Mikael Granlund deal. Hextall signed McGinn in one of his first acts as Pittsburgh’s GM back in the 2021 offseason. He had gone 26 games without a point earlier this season as part of a bottom-six group that effectively kneed Pittsburgh and doesn’t look much better, regardless of all the shuffling Hextall has done.

Now, if the plan is to play Kulikov, Pittsburgh will likely have to move either Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson or Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Dumoulin is a pending UFA who likely needs a sweetener for a team to have him. Pettersson has been the most effective of the three this season. Joseph is one of the organisation’s few relevant players on an entry-level deal. We will see what the result will be there. I’m skeptical that it will help the Penguins meaningfully, but we’ll see.

Anaheim acquired a third-round pick for two years with McGinn and some retention on Kulikov. It’s easy to imagine them flipping him next year, perhaps with some salary to spare, to a team in need of a fourth line that can skate and kill penalties. Not bad.

Penguins character: B
Duck’s character: B+

Dom Luszczyszyn: Getting out of Brock McGinn’s contract — $2.75 million for two more years — is a win. Getting Anaheim to keep money on Kulikov is also technically a win … if he’s a player a team wants to target. I wouldn’t have done that. But the deal gives Pittsburgh more cap flexibility, and that’s important.

Or it would be for another front office. After watching Ron Hextall torch valuable assets and set fire to acquire Mikael Granlund, I’m very skeptical that more flexibility is going to be a good thing. The implications of this deal feel like imminent loss. Maybe even a big one.

Let’s start with who they got: Dmitry Kulikov. He’s a left-shooting defenseman who has spent his entire career drowning in top-four minutes, with this season being his most extreme. Blame a bad team and a bad system all you want, but you can’t do that to every player on the team – not on a team rated as the worst defensive team in analysis time. They are so bad because of personnel, personnel that included and featured Kulikov in a prominent role.

Maybe he will do better on a better team in a smaller role. May be. He was genuinely good last year defensively, and the Penguins have a strong history of rehabbing defensemen. His use this year has not been easy. But last year also looks like an extreme year, a year that is completely undone by Kulikov’s work this year. Kulikov was worth 1.8 wins per 82 last year. This year it is the complete opposite: minus-1.8 wins. It’s hard to hurt a team that much by yourself, but we’re talking about a defender who is second to last on the Ducks in the expected target percentage of 37 per cent. He’s a big part of the problem – against a bad team, he’s been worse. According to data tracked by Corey Sznajder, Kulikov has been a liability in retrieving pucks in his own zone, turning those retrieves into exits and is a turnstile at his own blue line.

A third-round pick to this team is meaningless, and getting out of McGinn’s deal might be worth it alone. He has been his own brand of awful this year and is an offensive black hole. But this is another move that doesn’t move the needle at best, and could actually hurt the Penguins’ bottom line if Kulikov is as washed up as he has seemed this year. McGinn, as bad as he is offensively, is at least doing well defensively this year.

And that’s just this deal, one that creates a log on the left side with Dumoulin, Pettersson, Joseph and Ty Smith. I’m not sure Kulikov is an improvement over either of them. If the logical conclusion is to trade Pettersson — the best — then the Penguins will be the rare type of team that spends a ton of assets at the deadline only to come out on the other side of a worse team.

The “plan” is starting to take shape, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one at all.

Penguins character: C-
Duck’s character: B

(Photo: Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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