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One-Timers: Malkin WILL Help Penguins, What about Jason Zucker?

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Pittsburgh Penguins NHL trade deadline, Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen

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.

Readers beware.

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.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Ethan
Ethan
16 days ago

You don’t pay a player 5 million to slot into wing when someone gets hurt. And honestly, that is where Zucker should be in pecking order when he comes back (IF health of lineup persists???). Chances are, though, he will get put on “3rd” line (if 2nd with Malkin and Kappy I’ll throw my remote into wall and I don’t even use remote because I stream/mute commercials!) Hopefully, he has been hobbled by something like Rust was and comes back blazing. If not (or even if), gotta think Hextall will at least try to move to free up some cash… Read more »

Davie
Davie
16 days ago

Zucker will come back healthy and reclaim his 2LW spot. Kapanan will not rekindle the spark with Geno – ERod will take over as 2RW and make that line go. Heinen/Carter/Kap will punish 3rd D pairings.

Ryan
Ryan
15 days ago
Reply to  Davie

Zucker has never been a 2nd line player…ever. The worst of Rutherford’s mad scientist trades. He was banished to the fourth line in Minnesota. He’s always been a really expensive pascal dupuis

BIG B
BIG B
16 days ago

Long-time readers know we ask no quarter and give no quarter.Who are you soap box racer Ronnie Beck during Bart’s heroic victory. Good article Dan, and i think the emergence of EROD shows a path for Nylander in da Burgh.He has 13 goals in 83 games and had 10 in 65 games when he last played. Nylander has already shown some NHL ability and with a bit of pruning he might grow into a nice tree.

Frank
Frank
16 days ago

Until Malkin gets a dozen games under his belt . . .skates his 20 minutes . .. gets banged around by a series of hits (some with very bad intentions) I think the jury should hold its verdict. There is a gigantic gap between rolling around at practice and game action. That stretch of games will allow the front office to determine a half dozen things not only related to his future but what they can or cannot do with others. I have to admit though, that if the theory is that they are going to let Rust go as… Read more »

BigKat25
BigKat25
16 days ago
Reply to  Frank

yeah, we dont need the 4th greatest player in Pens history. lol

Frank
Frank
16 days ago
Reply to  BigKat25

Well then . . . we should give Lemeiux and Jagr a buzz. That would allow Sid to reclaim his “Kid” nickname.

Ryan
Ryan
15 days ago
Reply to  BigKat25

Arguably 4th…I might add. Bluster aside. Anyone who thinks the pens can do something without him are as delusional as that greaseball On 105.9

Last edited 15 days ago by Ryan
Tony C
Tony C
16 days ago

Excellent insights.

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
16 days ago

I hope 71 comes back on a tear.
Show me.

Lisa Nath
Lisa Nath(@lisanath)
15 days ago

I think one thing that hextall also adds is a calmness to the locker room … I think the players were starting to get on edge with Rutherford always worried about his next trade

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