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Gajtka: Penguins’ Draft Caution Prudent, But Trades Still Brewing

That’s why we should remain confident that this summer will get a lot warmer, maybe even before June is done.

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Unless you’re a fan of the Flames, Hurricanes or Capitals — hello, eight more years of John Carlson in D.C. — you could be excused for nodding off during the weekend that was supposed to get this NHL offseason cruising.

With the exception of that multi-player deal that sent Dougie Hamilton to Raleigh and Noah Hanifin to Calgary, the last few days have the feeling of cruise control. It won’t take that much to freshen up the trade market, as Dan Kingerski wrote from Dallas on Saturday night, but the summer of 2018 remains stagnant.

From a Penguins perspective, that’s probably a good thing. No doubt Jim Rutherford would’ve loved to be involved in a deal to build up his blue line, but that ‘Canes-Flames deal seemed almost pre-arranged, considering new Calgary coach Bill Peters‘ experience coaching Hanifin and center Elias Lindholm over the past four seasons.

Otherwise, the Penguins aren’t in a position where they need to force anything. Beyond the handful of restricted free agents that will probably take up most of that new room created under the rising salary cap, a completely neutral offseason wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. This team still has enough high-end talent to remain the envy of the league.

Eye on the Future

At the same time, the job of Rutherford and his staff is to make the gradual transition from the current era of contention to whatever comes next. Pittsburgh’s new director of amateur scouting Patrik Allvin got the chance to put his first imprint on the organization, leaning more toward the fast-twitch skills than his predecessor Randy Sexton.

Here was Allvin, a native of Sweden, talking up his first brood of baby birds:

As long as Mike Sullivan is in charge, deploying that high-octane style of play, the Penguins would be wise to bias their draft picks toward youngsters who can move their feet and move the puck.

That brings us back to the current group of ‘Guins. Sullivan’s statements to the assembled press Friday night in Dallas sounded like the foundation for another season of Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh, should no moves involving Phil suit Rutherford’s eye over the next three months.

The fact remains, though, that Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang and Kessel are all at least a couple years beyond what has been proven to be the prime of modern professional hockey players. These guys are unlikely to get any better, and you can throw the extended Patric Hörnqvist into that group as well.

That doesn’t mean the Penguins are poised to fall off a cliff, but it does remind that the days of glory are numbered. Regardless of how much Allvin and the Penguins love their twin second-round picks in Calen Addison and Filip Hållander, it’s a difficult ask to produce NHL contributors consistently when a team doesn’t have a first-rounder in back-to-back years. It sounds logical, but it bears repeating that the further down the draft a team picks, the less likely its draftees will have an impact at the highest level.

Best Route to Rejuvenation

For now, if the Penguins want to liven up their NHL roster, they’ll probably have to find a way to made a deal, much like they did three years ago when Kessel came to town.

Interestingly enough, there’s a specific player on the market that reminds a little of Kessel when Rutherford grabbed him from Toronto. Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner is 26, one year younger than Kessel was when he became a Penguin. Unlike Kessel’s pre-Pittsburgh situation, Skinner has but one year left on his contract that’ll cost his team $5.725 million against the cap, so in theory it should be easier to pull off a deal for Skinner than it was for Kessel.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported over the weekend that the Penguins had checked in on Skinner, who could slot in as a scoring-line left winger. He’s almost too perfect of a fit with Pittsburgh, which will have another high-caliber player to both light the lamp and sell jerseys in the team store.

Skinner is also in his prime and photogenic and, oh yeah, incredibly agile on this skates and deft with the puck. His 0.35 goals per game in his NHL career is very comparable to Kessel’s 0.37 before joining the Penguins. If we’re talking relationships, Rutherford is very familiar with both Skinner’s skill set and Carolina’s new GM, old Southeast Division rival Don Waddell.

Adding Skinner is the kind of move that makes sense for the Penguins — a trade that sends salary out to take on a difference-maker — as opposed to something more incremental. There are bargains to be found in free agency if they want an upgrade on Tom Kühnhackl or Chad Ruhwedel, which they probably should be seeking, to be clear.

However, if they really want to spruce up their Stanley Cup chances for 2019, bringing in another all-star (at any position) via trade is probably the only way to do it.

That’s why we should remain confident this summer will get a lot warmer for the Penguins, maybe even before June is done.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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