An interesting trend has developed as the Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone tumultuous and significant changes both on the ice and above. The changeover in the front office, combined with a stocked top-six, has created a plethora of former Penguins around the league.
Some of them are finding more success than they had in Pittsburgh.
Whether or not that reflects poorly on the current state of the Penguins organization or coach Mike Sullivan is entirely a matter of bias and conjecture. It does reflect a sad eye toward personnel decisions made by former GM Ron Hextall. Some of the choices made by current president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, are not exempt from a little side eye, either.
Of course, there is always a great temptation to rewrite history if we even understood it in the first place. The departures of players like Jared McCann or Sam Lafferty are often cited as horrible mistakes, but the actual history is far more complicated.
The truth is, some players need the increased responsibility and greater opportunity that the Penguins don’t have available. There’s a big difference between when a player looks around the room and sees players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who will carry the team, and when a player looks at the room and feels a need to be one of those guys.
The performances of the former Penguins are appropriately a mixed bag, with some rising, some falling, and an equal number performing at career norms.
Apologies in advance for twisting the knife on a couple of players. However, the totality doesn’t reflect poorly on Sullivan as some might have hoped but probably sheds even more negative light on Hextall.
Former Pittsburgh Penguins
Players Achieving More
Granlund is the perfect example of a player who didn’t fit with the Penguins. His slower game and lack of hard defensive play make him much more suited to an offensive role. Yet the Penguins acquired him to be a third-liner.
Granlund has 29 points (5-24-29) in 38 games. He had just five points (1-4-5) in 21 games with the Penguins.
The Penguins forward with a wicked wrist shot but reserved game needed a shove. He flashed offensive potential but reverted to a defense-first, defense-only mindset when Sullivan put him at center.
Hextall got only sliding prospect Filip Hallander for him near the 2021 NHL expansion draft. In fact, Dubas (as the Toronto Maple Leafs GM) outsmarted everyone by acquiring McCann for almost nothing and then exposing him to Seattle to protect his core players.
The new digs and bigger opportunity on a lesser team was the magic elixir. McCann scored 27 goals in his first Seattle Kraken season, followed by 40 last season and 20 tallies in 48 games so far this season. McCann is a prime example of getting an opportunity at the right time. He’s in the second year of a five-year deal with a $5 million salary cap hit.
There were some raised eyebrows as the Penguins, and Dubas proclaimed a desire for more speed but didn’t offer Poehling and his elite speed a qualifying offer.
The former Montreal Canadiens first-round pick (25th overall, 2017) showed well but not irreplaceably well in a largely bottom-line role last season. He had 14 points (7-7-14) in 53 games for the Penguins but also battled injuries. His time at third-line center wasn’t a bust, but it was a bit of a stretch for an established team to rely on him in that role. So, the Penguins did not meet his salary demands, and he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers for one year, $1.4 million.
The Penguins could have afforded that contract, but with safer options such as Noel Acciari, they opted not. Poehling has 14 points (5-9-14) in 45 games this season while centering the Flyers’ third line. He’s been a success and last signed a two-year deal with a $1.9 million average annual value (AAV).
Dubas could have kept him, but the uncertainty vs. cost ratio was better suited for a rebuilding team with lots of room and opportunity.
The tenure of Penguins stalwart defenseman who anchored the pairing with top D-man Kris Letang beginning with the 2017 Stanley Cup run was obviously coming to a close last season as it appeared years of tough assignments and lower-body injuries were catching up with him.
Dumoulin, 32, accepted a short-term, reduced salary contract with Seattle, paying him $3.125 million for two seasons.
However, Dumoulin’s advanced stats have spiked this season, including a 54% Corsi and the highest goals-per-60 rate in his career (.34). He has 11 points (4-7-11) in 48 games.
Dumoulin’s revival is a little surprising, but Seattle coach Dave Hakstol’s system is a little more defenseman-friendly, too.
Blueger won the Stanley Cup last season with the Las Vegas Golden Knights but spent significant time in the pressbox as a healthy scratch.
His offensive had fallen off the cliff with the Penguins, and he was part of the flurry of 2023 NHL trade deadline moves, which ultimately resulted in Granlund’s acquisition.
The former Penguins fourth-line center signed a one-year, $1.9 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks and is on a career-best offensive pace as a third-line center. Blueger has 21 points (5-16-21) in 35 games. His career best is 28 points in 79 games, achieved in 2021-22.
Blueger is part of the Canucks resurgence and their push atop the Western Conference.
The bottom-six forward had trouble cracking the Penguins lineup. Some inconsistency and bad penalties sealed his fate with his hometown team. Hextall swapped Lafferty for faded prospect Alex Nylander, who similarly couldn’t stick in the NHL in Buffalo and Chicago.
It was a hockey trade, but Nylander has not panned out nearly as well as Lafferty, who got the ice time he needed with the barren Chicago Blackhawks before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like Blueger, Lafferty signed with the Canucks over the summer.
Lafferty, 28, has 20 points in 49 games and has already equaled his career best with 10 goals, averaging 12:27 of ice time.
Oh boy, Matheson was the centerpiece for the trade for Jeff Petry. The Penguins never got the player they wanted with Petry, while Matheson has become a leader with the Canadiens.
Matheson’s stats continued the upward trend he began in Pittsburgh. This season, he’s already equaled his career-best point total (34) in just 49 games. The elite skating defenseman is a Canadiens’ cornerstone. Trading Matheson for Petry competes with the ill-fated Mikael Granlund trade as Hextall’s worst move.
Players Achieving Less
The defenseman’s career is winding down. His one year with the Penguins seemed to be the beginning of the end. He’s been healthy scratched this season with the Detroit Red Wings.
For the first time, he’s playing less than 19 minutes per game. He’s also on pace for the fewest goals of his career, with just two in 40 games this season, while tallying 14 points.
Dubas pulled a magic trick worthy of a headlining act on the Las Vegas strip by moving Petry in the Erik Karlsson trade without giving up significant assets to do so.
The former Penguins winger of whom Sullivan said, “He drags us into the fight,” and had a running locker room roast with Bryan Rust was thought to want a longer contract and more money but settled for a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Arizona Coyotes.
Zucker will be on the move at the NHL trade deadline, assuming Arizona remains out of the playoff chase. His production is down from last season when he was Evgeni Malkin’s sidecar. Last season, Zucker had 48 points and 27 goals in 78 games. This season, he’s on pace for less than 40 points with only seven goals in 38 games.
On the plus side, Arizona is much improved despite their hockey-homeless status. Arizona has a bit of an attitude in that little college barn, and he undoubtedly is part of that transformation.
The Penguins weren’t getting much from Kapanen. His point totals belied his ineffectiveness in the Penguins’ lineup. The St. Louis Blues claimed Kappanen on waivers, and after a hot start, Kappanen’s point totals are below his Penguins output.
This season, Kapanen has only 13 points (4-9-13) in 42 games. His advanced stats are also well underwater.
What happened to McGinn’s game is anyone’s guess. McGinn was never a high-point producer, but he’s flatlined over the last couple of seasons. McGinn cleared waivers and was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. This season, the speedy grinder has only three points (1-2-3) in 24 games.
Players Performing at Career Standard
John Marino, New Jersey
Marino was traded to New Jersey for Ty Smith and a pick in the summer of 2022, but the move was primarily to clear salary cap space to acquire Jeff Petry. Marino has had great stretches and some struggles with New Jersey. He has 15 points (3-12-15) in 47 games but is a minus-9.
Evan Rodrigues, Florida
“E-Rod” has 29 points (8-21-29) in 49 games. His best season was 43 points with the Penguins in 2021-22, and Rodrigues is a versatile cog in the Eastern Conference favorite Florida Panthers lineup. He is likely to set career highs but is generally performing at the pace he did with the Penguins.
Casey DeSmith, Vancouver
Statline: 7-3-4 record with a .911 save percentage.
Danton Heinen, Boston
Statline: 18 points (9-9-18) in 41 games.
Brandon Tanev, Seattle
The Penguins lost him in the expansion draft. Tanev is a speedy ball of energy. His point totals spiked last season with Seattle but are back to career norms this season.
Statline: 14 points (5-9-14) in 33 games.