“With the way the lines are spread out now, and the scoring spread out, we may be able to do this a little different way.”– Jim Rutherford
What is the “different way?”
Last Wednesday, the Penguins’ General Manager told the Cook and Poni radio show on 93.7 The Fan the Penguins are considering abandoning their chase of a third-line center in favor of middle depth. After seven months, and after couple deals which fell apart in the final minutes, the Penguins are looking at other ways “to do this.”
“This” of course means to build a Stanley Cup-worthy team around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
However, the initial stated premise by Rutherford, that scoring has been spread out across several lines, is a mirage. The Penguins are not a four-line team. They are a two-center team.
The third line produces points when Sidney Crosby is the center between Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel. The fourth line produces when Crosby or Malkin pivot between Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust.
Tuesday, the Penguins showed offensive flair and relentless spirit against the Vegas Golden Knights. After Carter Rowney was injured in the first period, Crosby played over 25 minutes including time on the penalty killing unit. Malkin skated for over 21 minutes.
Head coach Mike Sullivan loaded up the top lines; Guentzel with Crosby, and Kessel with Malkin. The results were as dynamic as the players involved.
Circumstance forced the Penguins hand Tuesday. However, the Penguins coaches have employed similar strategies for the past six weeks.
The results have been evident, but with a downside. The Penguins are winning, their best players are producing, and their secondary players are often spectators who drive Crosby’s ice time to its highest level in four years.
Load up the top six?
If the Penguins cannot find or acquire the proper pivot, the “other way” is old school Penguins thinking: Load up the top six.
If you can’t roll four good lines, roll two great ones. Everything which is old becomes new again.
The Penguins scouts have attended Buffalo Sabres games and Montreal Canadiens games. Both the Sabres and Canadiens have coveted left wingers who would be a significant upgrade over Dominik Simon on the Penguins top line.
The Sabres are still shopping pending unrestricted free agent Evander Kane. Kane, a power forward, had trouble previously in the Jets’ locker room and had a brush with the law in June 2016. He has just one point (0g, 1a) in his last 13 games.
The price tag, at last rumor in mid-January, was a first-round pick, a prospect, and a conditional draft pick. Of course, that sticker price was before Kane went colder than the city of Buffalo. Kane, who is owed about $1.7 million through the end of the season, would be the first power forward in a Penguins sweater since the last time they tried to stack the top line–the 2013 Jarome Iginla debacle.
The other brand name left wing supposedly on the market is the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty. The Montreal captain has not sunk with the ship. Pacioretty, 29, has 13 points (8g, 5a) in his last 14 games.
Last weekend, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos asserted it would take four pieces to get Pacioretty, or a solid NHL player and a piece in return. Pacioretty is owed almost $1.5 million this season and has a cap friendly $4.5 million hit next season.
Rick and the Rangers … Or Someone Else?
It’s almost silly to think the Rangers and Penguins could make a high profile trade but if the Rangers are truly bowing out of the playoff chase, it is in theory possible.
However, Nash’s high salary (he’s owed $2.5 this season), his pending unrestricted free agency, and the Rangers reportedly ridiculous asking price make this seem like a possibility only on a video game.
Nash’s teammate, Michael Grabner is also up for grabs. Grabner is a pending unrestricted free agent on an absurdly affordable contract. Grabner is owed about $532,000, has elite speed and has rediscovered his scoring touch.
Grabner would allow the Penguins to create three potent lines with speed. Grabner has 21 goals this season.
Injuries Make Prices Go Up
The Penguins biggest problem is again injuries. Wingers Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary are out for a few more weeks. Kuhnhackl and Rowney could be out, as well.
Perhaps it was a coincidence the L.A. Kings and Winnipeg Jets immediately stopped scouting the Penguins following Sheary’s injury (stick tap to Twitter follower Tom McCarthy for pointing that out).
If opposing GMs were trying to hold Rutherford to a higher standard before, now their ask will feel like armed robbery. The league knows the Penguins are simultaneously chasing history and have only a few more chances at a Stanley Cup. The championship window is wide open but closing.
The Penguins need for reinforcements could be urgent by tomorrow, which only makes the prices higher.
Get ready for an overpayment for depth replacements or a big splash. Daniel Sprong, a first-round pick, and Sheary are fair game. Do not exclude Guentzel from the list of potential trade chips, either. That’s the cost of doing business this season.
For the Penguins to win another Stanley Cup, they will have to lose a trade. Or two. There just isn’t another way to win, this season.
Plan B may be to add big name talent for the top six. But Plan A, a solid third-line center, would still be the shortest route to sustainability.