ST. PAUL — The NHL trade deadline might clear a path for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Believe it or not, the Penguins have the inside track to not only a playoff spot but third place in the Metro Division. First or second place is a bit of a pipe dream, as they’re 10 points back of the Carolina Hurricanes with only three games in hand.
The Penguins trail the Philadelphia Flyers by seven points but have a staggering five games in hand (how does that happen?!).
If the Penguins can go strong in the next few weeks, they could shove their primary competition, such as the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, and even the New Jersey Devils, off the table at the NHL trade deadline.
Kind of like bullying others out of the poker game with the big stack. Phil Kessel would appreciate that reference. And that’s what the Penguins can do. If they can stack several wins in a row, converting their games in hand will put a healthy distance on the competition, dampening the desires of those rival GMs to make a big splash.
That would be a win-win for the Penguins.
But there is the matter of winning the games, which has proven elusive.
Olympus is falling.
The Capitals are perilously close to falling out playoff race, and their clock already has a few chimes past midnight. Their gargantuan negative goal differential (minus-36) was almost certain to catch up with them sooner or later. They are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and nine points behind third-place Philadelphia with three games in hand.
Alex Ovechkin remains a slower version of himself, unable to carry the team as he’s done in years past. Nick Backstrom is essentially retired. Evgeny Kuznetsov has entered the NHL Player Assistance Program.
Last season, the Capitals initiated the equivalent of a controlled burn at the NHL trade deadline, selling Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway to the Boston Bruins. Then they dished Marcus Johansson to the Minnesota Wild and used a couple of the assets acquired to get young and out-of-favor Rasmus Sandin from the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also traded current Penguins center Lars Eller to the Colorado Avalanche.
Side note: Eller recently told us the story of his hurried and awkward trip to Colorado. He arrived 30 minutes before game time and didn’t hit the ice until after warmups started. He had never met any of the Avalanche players before.
T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha, and Joel Edmundson are the most likely to be dealt if Capitals GM Brian McClellan can find any takers. Before Thursday, Max Pacioretty had seven points (1-6-7) in 13 games and is a likely target to be on the move, too.
New York Islanders
The best the Penguins can do here is probably keep the Islanders from going all in.
Islanders emperor Lou Lamoriello swapped coaches two weeks ago, hiring Patrick Roy, who hasn’t coached in the league since 2016. It was a little bit of a Hail Mary for a team that remains very good on paper and very average in real life.
Roy’s arrival heralded a lot of excitement, but the wins haven’t immediately followed. The Fish Sticks are 3-2-1 since Roy’s arrival, but they figure to be far more stubborn than the Capitals.
In fact, the Islanders are a solid group without expiring contracts or obvious deadline trade targets. Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are under contract through 2025 and 2026, respectively.
In fact, reports suggest the Islanders’ trade plans are to buy, at least for now.
The Islanders are two points behind the Detroit Red Wings for a wild card and four points back of the Flyers with one game in hand. Yet, the Penguins are three points behind them with four games in hand.
Should the Penguins run the table on the games in hand, they’d have a five-point lead.
Four points or less behind the Penguins and Red Wings is go-time for the Islanders, who may look for trade deadline acquisitions with term (or possible term), as they did with Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the 2020 deadline. They might look for additions regardless.
However, if Detroit continues at its pace, it’s the Penguins who control the Islanders’ path and might force them to stand pat, delaying costly acquisitions until the summer when options are more plentiful.
New Jersey Devils
A goalie away. Thus far, president of hockey operations/GM Tom Fitzgerald has avoided the knee-jerk reaction to acquire a legitimate No. 1 goalie.
The Penguins and New Jersey are tied with 53 points, and the Penguins have two games in hand. Star center Jack Hughes returned to the lineup Thursday, but goaltending, more than injuries, has been the cement shoes holding them down.
Winger Tyler Toffoli and defenseman Colin Miller are their easily sellable assets. Both will be UFAs after the season. Otherwise, the predominant core of the New Jersey roster is under contract for several more years.
However, they are 4-6-0 in their last 10, and goaltending cost them dearly again on Thursday against the Calgary Flames. A few more wins by the Penguins and more sideways patches in New Jersey could lead Fitzgerald to delay a “goalie buy” until the NHL Draft when it’s a bit easier and likely costs a little less.
The rebuilding Flyers are a hungry bunch of scrappers who are overachieving under coach John Tortorella. Losing No. 1 goalie Carter Hart to his own misdeeds (whether criminal or not will be decided in the next 24 months) probably means the Flyers will fall out of contention, but they are the current holders of third place. And, their greatest feature, their attitude, shows no signs of abating.
Travis Konecny had a Gordie Howe hat trick Thursday, leading the Flyers to a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
GM Daniel Briere will let the boys figure it out. He’s committed to retooling (or rebuilding) and won’t be spending future assets to win now.
The Penguins can’t bully the Flyers out of the race because management is focused on the future, but they should pass them.