The offseason may be short, but it now appears we’re in for a fall of heavy-duty Penguins trade rumors and speculation after Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford declined to “put to bed” a potential trade of Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang.
The Penguins put the Malkin issue to sleep in the last offseason despite a healthy offer from Florida. Sources recently told PHN the Penguins trade talks were further along than we initially reported.
To leave the possibility open now was an error unless the opportunity is legitimately on the table.
“The best way to answer the question is: I’m not shopping (Malkin). I’m not shopping our core players, but we all know that in our game, one of the great, if not the greatest player (Wayne) Gretzky was traded,” Rutherford began on the Two Man Advantage podcast on Tuesday. “You want to always listen if somebody’s got something to offer.”
Would Rutherford have said the same if asked about Sidney Crosby? How will Evgeni Malkin react to being left exposed?
The answer to the latter could have future implications. Malkin renewed his commitment last offseason to prove he was still a great player. He mostly succeeded with 74 points in 55 games and was named the team MVP.
Another round of Penguins trade rumors could have a negative effect.
Rutherford is the polar opposite of former Pirates GM Neal Huntington and even Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan in regards to answering public questions. While Sullivan usually prefers to speak with vague compliments to avoid divulging information, and Huntingdon could often be incomprehensibly unspecific, Rutherford typically answers questions with a matter of fact honesty.
In an age of media training and forced vanilla personalities, lest even a single fan takes to Twitter to be outraged, Rutherford is fresh air. If he receives criticism, it’s not for dishonesty but from those against his view of the situation.
Consider this criticism of his view of the situation.
“I’m not in a hurry and not trying to trade any of those top guys,” Rutherford concluded.
The middle, or hedging a bet, is not the position in which Rutherford has put the Penguins.
Rutherford just pushed the Penguins all-in on the 2020-21 season with his expensive acquisition of Kasperi Kapanen from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Multiple other reports indicated other teams, such as the Carolina Hurricanes, who are arguably closer to a Stanley Cup than the Penguins, declined the steep price that the Penguins quickly paid.
Yet another report indicated teams in the playoff bubble were upset they didn’t get a chance to bid on the Penguins 15th overall pick. In analogous terms, Rutherford walked onto the car lot and paid sticker price for the car he wanted without much shopping around.
So, the Penguins system, which is mostly bereft of legit NHL prospects, will not have a first-round pick in 2020 or 2021. That is going all-in for a core trying to capture a fourth Stanley Cup.
“You wonder about guys, they have won two, three Cups, and they have a great legacy already,” Rutherford said. “You still want to win, but do you still have that same drive as when you were trying to win the first one. And the second one. And the third. I sit there and wonder sometimes.”
Wrong for Hockey Reasons
Let’s translate GM speak, in this case, based on everything we know. Last offseason, the Penguins were close to dealing Malkin, but after reflection, it didn’t happen. Malkin is still a Pittsburgh Penguin because Sidney Crosby stepped forward to put the brakes on the move. Team sources also believe owner Mario Lemieux would ultimately say no to future moves, as well.
If you missed the small PHN expose a couple of weeks ago, here it is. It was quite the high-noon drama inside the Penguins last summer.
After Rutherford pushed his chips all-in on the next couple of seasons, leaving the door ajar on trading Malkin is not only surprising but would be wrong. It’s not wrong for any sentimentality or emotional reasons, and not wrong because it was settled last season, but wrong for hockey reasons.
The short answer is the Penguins would be without a second-line center. Max Domi is the only thing approaching a second-line pivot who may be available on either the free agent or NHL trade market.
Teams don’t trade top-two centers. They especially don’t trade top-line quality centers.
Like many of you and Malkin’s wife, I would like to see what Evgeni Malkin would do if he led a team by himself. I think the results would end in a Stanley Cup, if at all possible.
However, the Penguins are all-in NOW. There isn’t the time or ability to backtrack. To acquire Kapanen, then deal Malkin would leave a giant hole in the middle.
It would be like buying expensive rims for your new car, then selling the engine.
We haven’t even discussed Malkin’s No-Movement-Clause, which means he gets final say over any moves. Last May or June was the time to deal Malkin if it was ever going to be.
Florida is undergoing upheaval and will likely lose multiple core players via free agency without replacement.
Rutherford not slamming the door shut was a mistake and may inject a little turmoil into the Penguins’ attempt to brush past recent failures and large signals that the championship run is ending. It may also add to ill-feelings from the locker room.
Rutherford was honest and full points for it. But there is no middle ground on an Evgeni Malkin trade. Do or do not. There is no listening. The effect of listening could hurt the very mission on which Rutherford has embarked.
Now, about the potential for the Penguins trade of Kris Letang…