So tell me what he wants, what he really, really wants? With the NHL trade deadline just 10 days away and new prospects arriving, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall addressed the media on Friday morning and did his best to leave a little mystery at PPG Paints Arena.
On several occasions, Hextall specifically delineated the team’s first 35 games, some of which were played without Sidney Crosby and all of which were without Evgeni Malkin. The last 23 games have been a roller coaster of effort, losses, mistakes and dreary performances.
Even the Pittsburgh Penguins GM admitted it had been two different teams.
Slipped into Hextall’s press conference was a harken back to the strategy the 2016 Penguins used effectively. Remember the AHL kids (Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary, and more), who provided a jolt of energy and enthusiasm that kept the war-weary Penguins fresh and energetic.
Hextall would like to see the team play with more energy, which he could address internally. While he said the Penguins prospects aren’t untouchable, he did not give the green light. Instead, he cited a handful as potential solutions to the Penguins energy crisis.
“Well, it depends what part of the season you look at, I guess. I think the first 35 games, we played so well. We had a lot of players out of our lineup, and then let’s be real, also top players. So I thought we did a really good job there,” Hextall said. “I think right now I’d like to see a little bit more energy in our game, a little bit more consistency. So from that standpoint, we’ll see what happens tonight and kind of address those if to go along and, Puusty is up now, and P.O. Is up now. So there are some things that we can do internally here that we’ll continue to evaluate.”
Puusty is 2019 seventh-round pick Valtteri Puustinen, who was recalled on Thursday.
Hextall did his best to avoid specifics but admitted at least one obvious area he would like to address. In his nearly 15-minute press conference, he admitted the Penguins would like a forward. If possible.
The Penguins middle-six, especially Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues, have vanished from the score sheets. Kapanen may not play on Friday night against the Vegas Golden Knights, falling so far as to be a healthy scratch.
Sullivan wouldn’t confirm or deny the possibility in his pre-game presser. But Kapanen has just two points (0-2-2) in his last 17 games.
It takes two to tango at the NHL trade deadline, and Hextall confirmed the Penguins are talking to a few teams but pumped the breaks on anything imminent.
“Would we like that a little bit upfront? Yeah, that would be a fair statement, but I think every team would like that a little bit upfront or maybe on the back end. So I feel good. I don’t feel like I have to do anything, but if we can get better, we’re sure we can try,” Hextall said.
Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects
It could be noted Hextall also referenced the prospects in his answer.
“I feel pretty good about the depth of our team. If you look at our defense. We’ve been pretty healthy all year. Obviously, we have guys even down in the minors. P.O. (Joseph). Juuso (Riikola). So I think if you look upfront, you know, we’ve got OC (Drew O’Connor) and Z (Radim Zohorna), and Puustinen, (Filip) Hallander, (Kasper) Bjorkqvist. So I feel good about the depth of our team,” Hextall said.
Did anyone notice he didn’t mention the top 2019 draft picks, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare? Both have struggled in their professional debut season. The team moved Poulin to center in January.
But I digress.
The Penguins’ middle-six has been non-existent for too many of the last 23 games. Since Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup, the second and third-line wingers have counterintuitively scored less, even as Malkin scores more.
Danton Heinen, Jeff Carter, Kapanen, Brock McGinn, and Evan Rodrigues haven’t scored at a rate commensurate with their role. The Crosby line with Rust and Jake Guentzel currently accounts for about 40% of the Pittsburgh Penguins even-strength offense. Most nights, it seems well more.
The drop-off has created a steep need before the NHL trade deadline unless Hextall bets on one of those players rediscovering their groove.
“When you look at the first, maybe 35 games, the top-scoring was there. And then recently, we can look at the numbers and show who it’s dried up for. So they’re certainly capable of it. I think Kappy had eight goals in the first 35 or so games…,” Hextall said. “So I think, yes, it’s there. I think there are some guys that need to play a little bit better…So yes, I do have confidence that if we can’t do something, we do have enough scoring, but would we like to add a little bit of scoring?
As I said, of course.”