Grading Penguins Trades, Hextall; Improvements but a Big Problem
A day after the uproar following the Pittsburgh Penguins trade for Mikael Granlund which bordered on just this side of table-pounding fury, GM Ron Hextall finished his roster construction just before the horn of the 2023 NHL trade deadline.
After reports legit and not linked the Penguins to savory names like Brock Boeser and Jakob Chychrun, the opening move for Granlund hit every sour note within the Penguin fanbase and the song’s chorus “Fire Hextall” was sung loudly.
However, GM Ron Hextall’s subsequent acquisitions of Nick Bonino and Dmitry Kulikov were nearly pitch-perfect.
The two adds on Friday were good enough to soften the chorus, but the 2023 NHL trade deadline moves also set in motion potentially gut-wrenching consequences this summer.
And therein is Hextall’s grade: C
The Granlund trade could cripple the franchise in the same way that multi-year deals for Kasperi Kapanen and Jeff Carter seemed to drown the Penguins salary cap structure.
Spending $5 million on a third-line winger who is neither good at faceoffs nor penalty killing (yet has been a penalty killer for most of his career) will hinder re-signing efforts of Jason Zucker, Tristan Jarry, and perhaps Brian Dumoulin.
Next season, the Penguins have just under $63 million committed to 14 players. They’ll have about $21 million to add a top-six winger, a top-four defenseman, a starting goalie, and two-thirds of a third line.
Good luck with that.
If the trade tree becomes Zucker, Jarry, Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn for Granlund, Hextall will never live it down. Perhaps he shouldn’t.
But we can’t grade what hasn’t happened yet.
Nick Bonino, Bonino, Bonino!
The Nick Bonino trade was perfect. A fifth and seventh to add the old friend who lifted a pair of Stanley Cups, including the second on a broken leg, fits the Penguins’ needs perfectly.
Without Bleuger and with Ryan Poehling’s season in limbo as he deals with a nagging injury and setbacks, the Penguins needed a fourth-line center and a penalty killer.
Bonino, 34, has 18 points, including 10 goals, in his last 39 games. Such offensive output puts him well above the entire Penguin’s fourth-line cast. Actually, it’s better than their third-line cast, too.
Bonino also knows how to win. See also the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups.
But a fourth-line center’s effect is limited by ice time. Bonino won’t play 12 or 14 minutes. He’ll play 10, though a few more goals in that span surely won’t hurt the Penguins.
Dmitry Kulikov might be an insurance policy, or he might be a vital third-pairing defenseman. Or somewhere in between. The Penguins saved $500,000 this season when they shed Brock McGinn’s contract, which had two more years, for Kulikov who is a solid depth option.
Kulikov is responsible defensively but not a lockdown defenseman. He has some offense but isn’t offensive. He can move well.
Kulivkov or P.O Joseph will be the No. 7 defenseman. Over the last few playoff series, the Penguins have reached eight deep, so a bonafide NHL defenseman waiting in the wings is a solid add.
The trio of additions cost the Penguins a second, a third, a fifth, and a seventh-round pick.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are just a bit better than they were. If Granlund can resuscitate Jeff Carter, they will be significantly better. But it seems unfair to ask Granlund to be a savior. That’s not his game. He’s a small forward and playmaker.
The initial outing with Carter and Granlund in Tampa Bay was a resounding success. For the first time in recent memory, the third line was on the right side of the puck.
But the long-range outlook, especially the lack of financial flexibility, tempers any optimism. The secondary trades softened the blow of the first. Hextall did OK at the trade deadline, but he didn’t get enough for the “now” to balance the pain later.