Ron Hainsey was just what the Penguins needed last year.
That isn’t the case this time around.
To set the scene, the Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles and appear to be on the shortlist of championship contenders after rediscovering themselves in recent weeks. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all challenging for the Art Ross Trophy, the star power that steers the ship is very much still shining. Scorers typically hit their peaks in their mid-20s, but indications are that these three guys should remain at least top-20 performers for another year or two.
And with two Penguins Cups in the can, Jim Rutherford shouldn’t feel undue pressure to give up his first-born child for a player that can only help for this season. Not that Hainsey cost that much last year, but the second-round draft pick sent to Carolina for the gray-bearded vet was still real value sent away for short-term gain.
Yes, as Dan Kingerski and I discussed on this week’s Press Box Nachos podcast, you only get so many opportunities to realistically compete for a title. These chances are indeed precious. In no way am I disputing that. Strike while the iron smolders.
But in my view, Rutherford’s primary job this spring is to make sure to maximize the next couple of years, not this year above all else.
Go Hard for Brassard
A large part of my argument rests on how well the Penguins have played since the start of January. As I detailed a couple weeks ago, both the surface results and the underlying numbers suggest we’re looking at one of the best teams in the league yet again.
Nothing’s changed since then, with the Penguins (35-22-4) having won five in a row to challenge the Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Whatever ailed them in the first three months of their three-peat challenge has been minimized, if not eliminated. The Penguins are back.
Some might say this new-year push is a reason to go ‘all in’ on 2017-18. I say it’s a reason to be prudent.
This is not the time for a Marián Hossa or a Jarome Iginla. No slight to either of those men — and definitely not Hossa, who scored an incredible 26 points in the 2008 playoffs — but 2018-19 and maybe even 2019-20 needs to be as much of a focus as this season, in my view.
To Rutherford’s credit, several of his higher-profile acquisitions as Penguins general manager have been for players under contract for more than one season. What do Ian Cole, David Perron, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley all have in common? They weren’t so-called ‘rentals’ when brought aboard.
So when Darren Dreger reported Monday that the Penguins were one of a few teams “in the mix” for Senators center Derick Brassard, it made sense on multiple levels. Not only would Brassard immediately fill that need down the middle, but he would also be under contract for next season as well. He’ll be owed $5 million in 2018-19, which is also approximately how much the salary cap will rise next year.
It’ll take a significant ‘give’ for the Penguins to add Brassard, but he seems like the best possible fit for the Penguins both now and into the near future.
Striking the Balance
This is where the challenge really comes into the picture for Rutherford and his hockey operations staff. To acquire a player of Brassard’s caliber, or anyone under contract for more than this year, it’ll probably require a young player or two in order to reach an agreement.
It might be Conor Sheary, of the $3 million cap hit over the next two seasons. It might be Jake Guentzel, of the cheap salary and promising potential. It might be Daniel Sprong, of the bullet-like shot but uncertain future. It might be Zach Aston-Reese, of the powerful frame and nose for the net. It might even be Olli Määttä or Brian Dumoulin, of the long-term contracts and cost certainty.
No matter who has to go, the Penguins will be losing a player who could’ve helped them win between now and the end of the decade. Say they trade for Brassard. Maybe his scoring downturn in Ottawa is real and not just something to blame on Guy Boucher‘s system.
There’s risk in every deal, though. Rutherford has said as much, but the Penguins are in a position where capitalizing on the Crosby-Malkin Era is the primary priority. Some would say that anything beyond three Cups is a bonus. The reality is that the Penguins might not be in such a good position to win it all again for a long time.
There is a difference, however, between thinking 2018 is the year and giving yourself the best chance to be right there next year and even the year after that, when your game-changers will presumably still be game-changers. Besides, the rental class headed by Evander Kane and Rick Nash doesn’t inspire that much for a Penguins team heavy on wingers.
No need to get fancy. The Penguins need a center now, and they’ll likely need one next season, with apologies to current American Hockey League citizens Teddy Blueger and Adam Johnson.
For today and tomorrow, Brassard is the prime candidate. If not him, then another center with staying power.