No, the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason has not been a dandy. Sparkling jewels have not been added to the crown, but rather Penguins GM Jim Rutherford gambled on players whose past performances outshined recent production. The budget is maxed out, so unless Rutherford shuffles the deck, this is the Penguins.
And, you know what, I’m starting to think things might not be as bad in the short term, as popular sentiment believes.
Don’t misunderstand. Rutherford’s willingness to chuck first-round picks at his colleagues like red dodgeballs will leave the Penguins in a bad way sooner than later. The deal to acquire Kasperi Kapanen in exchange for a first-rounder (and a swap of prospects) was costly for a player who scored 13 goals last season.
However, in the near, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a chance for one more run.
Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Mark Jankowski, Evan Rodrigues, and Cody Ceci are the bets on which Rutherford placed his chips. Not every bet needs to hit, in part because the Penguins do have some insurance.
There are a lot of ifs, but if a few break the Penguins’ way, it’s starting to look like the team could be stout.
The first is Sam Poulin. After our film study of Poulin, PHN came away impressed. He won’t score 20 goals next season, but it appears the 2019 first-round pick is ready. His penchant for staking the right-wing could solidify the Penguins third line in a way that free-agent signings Mark Jankowski or Evan Rodrigues cannot.
If Poulin cracks the lineup, Rodrigues can slide to the fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Colton Sceviour. Or Sam Lafferty wedges himself into the top-12. But a Poulin addition would be a significant talent infusion.
The top-six forwards hit full capacity because the top-heavy team will live or die based on the top-six. Jason Zucker must be a 25-goal scorer. Bryan Rust must be a 20-goal scorer. And, Kapanen must be a legitimate finisher and puck retriever on Sidney Crosby’s RW. If Kapanen has another 13-goal season, the Penguins are in trouble.
If the Penguins get maximum production from the talented top-six, they’ll be tough to beat.
But, if more than one top-six winger regresses or struggles, the Penguins are in big trouble.
Big, big trouble.
The Jankowski or Rodrigues gamble must payoff, especially Jankowski. The Penguins don’t have 12 legitimate NHL forwards if neither UFA signee sticks and the scramble would begin as injuries mount.
And injuries will certainly accrue in a compressed schedule.
And here’s the big one: If the NHL trade market starts flowing, again. Not all of the Penguins gambles will pay off, and the team will have holes to fill. However, if a couple of the bets hit, then the Penguins will be better positioned. There isn’t a better GM in the NHL at fixing mistakes or willing to gamble.
There will be many players available, and hockey trades will be available, which plays into Rutherford’s wheelhouse.
The Penguins can rescue Matheson from the quagmire in which he became ensconced with the Florida Panthers.
Should Matheson become the player the Florida Panthers believed they had after his rookie season, the Penguins will have a gem. However, the last two seasons have been tough and tougher, respectively.
The Penguins are on the hook for six years at $4.8 million AAV. PHN has graded the acquisition poorly and won’t change that trade grade, but the Penguins will go from questionable to stellar if this one works.
There are many “ifs” for the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins, but if Poulin plants himself into the Penguins lineup, other stars begin to align, and the Penguins look much better than the current lines. Like watching the election results, there are multiple paths for the Penguins to reach the finish line.
Perhaps you noticed I wrote the ifs in descending order of probability, from Poulin to the trade market and Matheson.