This headline sat on my desk for a few days. After doing the live chat on our YouTube channel this week, the same questions about Evgeni Malkin were repackaged in different ways. There are persistent questions about Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall and Hextall’s next move. It’s time to tee up the puck for a few more one-timers.
Long-time readers know we ask no quarter and give no quarter. You will never catch us pandering to the majority or spouting opinions that are in the majority for the sake of being part of the collective. It was time to restate that principle for the tens of thousands of new readers.
After 10 wins in a row, the longest this season in the NHL, the Penguins are about to get better, and the league is beginning to notice.
1. Evgeni Malkin will disrupt the Pittsburgh Penguins?
That’s the question and assertion of some. The short answer is no. The longer answer is…no. Long ago, fans who expected Stanley Cups came to see Evgeni Malkin’s complex game and the consequences of the riskier parts as unfavorable. It’s true Malkin has not always been a good steward of the puck, and he’s not always played a game that blended seamlessly with head coach Mike Sullivan’s style.
Malkin’s worst was still a net positive even in the worst moments. But frustration colors reality, no?
Let’s review Malkin’s last two seasons. He returned from injury, frustration, and trade talk in 2019-20 to absolutely dominate. Perhaps the best version of Malkin we have seen since his Hart Trophy days of 2011, Malkin posted 74 points in 55 games, including 25 goals before the pandemic hit.
Would that version of Evgeni Malkin hurt the Penguins?
Last season, he was down at the start. He battled injury and a slump before he and Kasperi Kapanen clicked six weeks into the season. The resulting fire (“I am fire”) lit the wick for the Penguins run to the top of the division.
How could that player hurt the Penguins?
“I think as far as our team goes, when we get fully healthy here, it’s going to be fun to see what we’ve got. And I think we’ve got a really good team. I think a lot of us feel that we can do something special this year,” Bryan Rust said on Tuesday night after the Penguins rallied to beat St. Louis, 5-3.
Sure, you can pick plays or moments, such as Malkin’s bromance with Phil Kessel that led each astray, but Malkin always finds his way home. After 15 seasons, he is innocent until proven guilty. And even then, he’s innocent until proven guilty a few times.
Malkin may disrupt the Penguins flow for a moment–that’s only human nature to stand back and let a generational talent do the job–but with secondary leaders like Jeff Carter backing up Sidney Crosby, and an uncertain future, the Penguins aren’t going to be unsettled for long.
Or, think of it this way, if Hextall traded a bag of magic beans for a player of Malkin’s ability, would you not go crazy for it?
2. Jason Zucker Something Something
Zucker’s struggles are not a bigger story because of winning and Evan Rodrigues, who has filled the net unlike any stretch in Zucker’s Penguins career. Zucker didn’t receive gobs of criticism because the Penguins haven’t skipped a beat and are perhaps better off with the little engine that could in the top six.
Now that he’s out of the lineup, it seems to be an afterthought.
Will the Penguins resurrect Zucker, trade him, or bounce him down in the lineup upon his return? It depends on what helps the team. If the team gets a good offer, a trade is presumably possible. If Rodrigues continues filling his plate like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, then Zucker will almost necessarily be relegated to third-line duty. And the option exists to figure out just how to get Zucker on track.
Zucker does have 20 or more goals four times in his previous 10 seasons. He has talent, and doing whatever it takes to unlock it is not a bad idea.
But after another goal Thursday night, Rodrigues has 15 already this season and the Penguins need space for him.
3. Ron Hextall Has been Sneaky Sneaky Good
Hextall has not yet rung the bell on a blockbuster or a team-changing move. We can debate if he lost Jared McCann for nothing and if Danton Heinen is an appropriate substitute. Still, Heinen’s inclusion in the conversation merely buttresses the point: Hextall has been sneaky good.
No, I don’t think Heinen is an equal replacement for McCann, but the Pittsburgh Penguins did not believe they could afford an equal player. In the bargain bin, Hextall found Heinen, who has nine goals this season. That’s pretty good.
Hextall essentially swapped Brandon Tanev for Brock McGinn and $750,000. That’s a good trade-off, too.
Hextall’s first trade was conditional third and fourth-round picks for Jeff Carter, which has worked out better than anyone thought possible. In 41 games with the Penguins, Carter has 18 goals and 28 points. He filled the second-line center role admirably and aided the Penguins league-leading penalty killing.
Even re-signing Evan Rodrigues counts under Hextall’s watch. Perhaps so, too, does his lack of panic over Tristan Jarry’s playoff performance.
On Wednesday, Hextall acquired 2016 eighth overall pick, Alex Nylander, for Sam Lafferty. It’s probably a nothing-burger move. Nylander has not established himself in the NHL despite playing for desperate teams in Buffalo and Chicago. However, the Penguins didn’t have room for Sam Lafferty, and Hextall rolled the dice with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Nylander is unlikely to become a top-six NHL forward, but the gamble cost nothing. Of course, if it works, Hextall will be a genius, and the Penguins will have rescued yet another talent.
Hextall has been sneaky, sneaky good.
4. Evan Rodrigues is fun to watch
There’s nothing else. His confidence with the puck, his willingness to let it rip, and the fun he is having is fun to watch.
Also, watch the chemistry he and Bryan Rust are developing. Last week, the two had a playful interaction during a media availability after practice when Rust crashed Rodrigues’ presser to ask a question. Then the pair were joking about it after a Rodrigues goal. They were laughing about something after another goal on Thursday night.
Rust and Rodrigues are both filling the net, too.
On Thursday, Rodrigues was given an assist on Rust’s second goal in Philadelphia. He’s having the time of his life, and maybe Bryan Rust sees a bit of his story in Rodrigues’ breakout in his later 20s.