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Hextall’s Problem: Address Middle Six by Trade Deadline? Cup Chances in the Balance

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NHL Trade, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ron Hextall

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a giant problem with the NHL trade deadline in 12 days. The issue is a black hole in the middle of the lineup as players paid to score or asked to score have become quiet as church mice. Gone ice cold. Vanished. Disappeared.

GM Ron Hextall has a decision to make. Any chance of the Penguins being competitive in the playoffs hangs in the balance because one-line teams become extinct come the second season, but scoring wingers don’t come cheap.

On Tuesday night, the Penguins’ top liners, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust, scored all three goals. On Friday, Crosby and Guentzel scored the Penguins goals against Carolina.

Since Jan. 1, the Crosby line has 22 goals in 417 minutes at 5v5. The rest of the team has only 34 in 915 minutes, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

“I think we’ve got to do a better job at rolling our lines and everybody putting in the work and following the systems. And I think when we do that, we can hem teams in the offensive zone and tire them out, and that’s when we get our opportunities to go out there and score,” Brock McGinn said. “So I think we all have to be committed to go out there and do it.”

At the risk of parsing words beyond their meaning, McGinn’s choice of words regarding everyone putting in the work and following systems did strike me. In a different world–when we conducted interviews eye-to-eye in the room–we could have asked for more clarification.

And the Penguins hope to do more than simply participate in the playoffs hangs in the balance while head coach Mike Sullivan scrambles to find lines, combinations, or confidence for a handful of players to begin putting the puck in the net.

“I’m trying to make decisions behind the bench and game to game that’s going to give our team the best chance to win. I made the decision (to remove Kapanen from the second line) the third period to go with the guys…because we felt like we needed to get more throughout our lineup, more threats from different lines,” Sullivan said. “And we didn’t feel like we were getting it, and that’s why we chose to make the changes that we made in the third period.

And we’ll see where it goes moving forward.”

That’s a big thing to watch–how the Penguins move forward with the NHL trade deadline looming.

But what is the context of this season for GM Ron Hextall? Is it the end of an era on which GM Ron Hextall can’t afford to spend future assets, or is it still go-time?

If it is the latter, Hextall has an urgent matter at hand. The Pittsburgh Penguins got a good look at the best in the Eastern Conference. They were brilliant against Tampa Bay but not good enough, and their flaws were on display against Carolina and Florida.

The Penguins middle-six produced nothing on Tuesday night, and that hasn’t been a rare occurrence. Middle-six wingers Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, and Brock McGinn are punchless. In fairness, McGinn wasn’t paid to be a scorer, and Rodrigues and Heinen weren’t supposed to be go-to scorers either.

But it’s their job, now.

Unless Hextall can work within the Penguins cap constraints to add help.

On Tuesday night, Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, and Evan Rodrigues combined for three shots and one attempt. With some irony, new middle-six insert, the maligned Dominik Simon had two shots and two attempts. His output equaled the other four.

In the third period of the Penguins 4-3 loss to Florida, Kapanen was dropped from Evgeni Malkin’s line, again. Sullivan keeps providing the opportunity but isn’t getting the payoff from his player.

“We’re trying to find combinations that we can put together that gives us balance. It gives us an opportunity to put guys in positions to be successful. And so everybody, Kappy included, must take ownership for their game, and they’ve got to bring their best game forward,” said Sullivan.

Kapanen isn’t producing, and on Tuesday, his drive-by defensive play aided Florida to score the game’s first goal. Kapanen had no shots on goal and just one attempt.

Sure, there are drastic measures Sullivan can take. He could flip Bryan Rust to Malkin’s line and try to rekindle Rodrigues’s stalled season with time on the top line. He could put McGinn or Zach Aston-Reese in the top-six.

Those aren’t very good suggestions, are they? The Penguins could transform from a one-line team into a no-line team quickly.

Middle-six roles need to be more than occasional scorers. It’s not a bonus when they score. It’s a necessity.

PHN reported that the Penguins are not in serious talks for Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser. Earlier this season, the Penguins traded Sam Lafferty for Alex Nylander. Sources told PHN that Nylander, the Buffalo Sabres 2016 eighth overall pick, bought into the system and played well. He had 16 points (8-8-16) in 24 games before illness took him from the lineup.

Penguins 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin has been moved to center because his skating wasn’t good enough to get to the edges on the wing.

The Penguins’ middle-six, which was so good in the first half of the season, has been AWOL in the second half. There are 12 days to the NHL trade deadline and Hextall’s only chance to address the situation.

What is this season worth in context of the organization and future? Did we mention the NHL trade deadline looms in 12 days?

It’s Hextall’s move. If the Penguins want a Stanley Cup chance, one is necessary.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Katz
Katz
8 months ago

Cup chances, LOL

Dean
Dean
8 months ago

One new winger is not going to solve this problem. We have 6-8 players that are not producing. We know they are capable; we saw it at the beginning of the year.

This is a coaching problem that has been going on since Crosby and Malkin returned to the line-up. At any level of sports, I have never seen when a player not producing wasn’t benched.

Watching seems to do amazing things to an athlete. Just ask Friedman!!!

Mike
Mike
8 months ago
Reply to  Dean

The right new winger, if he really clicks with Malkin, could solve a heck of a lot. Can’t say I expected it at 35 and coming off manly knee surgery, but Malkin still has it. If you can get Malkin a little help so his line becomes a real 1-2 punch with Sid’s line, then you saw what was possible against Tampa. Will that solve the bottom six? No. Will the defense suddenly be elite? No. But a Penguins team with L1 AND L2 going? If the goaltending is there, I’m not sure anyone would want any part of that… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Opening up Malkin with a decent winger is everything. He looks really good of late…driving play. And he has ALWAYS been the X factor.

Paul
Paul
8 months ago
Reply to  Dean

Yeah, let’s scratch the bottom three lines minus Malkin and call up eight W-B ‘Quins. Sully is the only coach in the league who refuses to do this. Idiot!

Kris
Kris
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Do you understand the roster limit of 23 guys? Are you willing to part with these guys due to their scoring drought and put your faith in the great Wilkes Barre youth (that is presently on a 4 game losing streak). Carter, Rodrigues, McGinn, Blueger, Aston-Reese, Heinen… none of these guys will clear waivers to Wilkes Barre to make room for your so-called youth saviors. Pretty sure we are in a playoff position, so how about we continue to tinker and hopefully get a trade AT THE DEADLINE DAY as is normal and go from there. Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary,… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
8 months ago
Reply to  Dean

They are what they are. The pens have 6 wingers now that are dead weight…2 bad rutherford trades that cost a fortune, 2 sully favorites that do nothing…and couple of role players that are being miscast.

Last edited 8 months ago by Ryan
Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
8 months ago

Hexy needs to go get a winger and understand we will have losses in FA? or will they be gaines? Sullivan is that kid that owns the only basketball. He says it’s my way or I am going home with that ball. I don’t like the guy.

Dave Heyl
Dave Heyl
8 months ago

Zahorna!!!!!!!!!

Mike
Mike
8 months ago
Reply to  Dave Heyl

I’d love to see him get a look with Malkin, but whether it’s him or someone else, the one thing I don’t get is the reticence to experiment. Playoffs are set. Position is pretty much set. Line 2– not Malkin but the line as a whole- stinks with Kapanen and is just okay with Carter on the RW. So why not try out of tue box things and see if something sticks? Are the odds against something like Zohorna or DOC or Iceburgh or whoever panning out? Sure. But, it can’t be any worse than what a guy like Kapanen… Read more »

Kris
Kris
8 months ago
Reply to  Dave Heyl

Zohorna but OK sure.

Paul
Paul
8 months ago

The reason only four guys score all the goals is because only four guys have the ability to score consistently. It would take a blockbuster deal to fix this on short notice, and HexBurke doesn’t like to trade even a little bit. Much better to do nothing for job security. Burkie gives great media interviews, though. #WaitTilNextYear

Last edited 8 months ago by Paul
Chris R
Chris R
8 months ago

Curious about McGinn’s answer. Is he suggesting there are some slackers on the roster (in addition to you-know-who) dragging the team down?

Do not mess with the only consistently producing line. Do not let Rust go, no matter how impossible re-signing him seems. Just…don’t.

It’s hard not to see that at least a third of the roster was producing when the team was injury laden and it was constantly “next man up.” Something changed, but what? Or was that a fluke and this is how it really is? At least Friedman’s providing some life.

rjdetroit
rjdetroit
8 months ago

It’s funny how as soon as you give Carter and Erod contract extensions they vanished and a lot of these guy’s aren’t really that good

Bachinga
Bachinga
8 months ago
Reply to  rjdetroit

ERod has not be extended…

So ha ha…

Ethan
8 months ago
Reply to  rjdetroit

Not sure of any contract extension for ERod. As for Carter, he has scored over 400 career goals–so not sure how you can say he isn’t “really good”. To me the problem seems to be a fear of bringing up certain guys because others would have to shame/sneak thru waiver wire. Otherwise why wouldn’t you try out a few guys on middle lines and see what happens??? Nylander, Puustinen, and Zohorna all come to mind. Big Z Jr certainly looked decent earlier. Seems like we will certainly see that once roster is allowed to be expanded following deadline.

Bachinga
Bachinga
8 months ago

ZAR played the left side with Kessel and Malkin in 18/19 and that line played very well…his ability to both support possession and gain possession is something none of Geno’s recent wingers have been able to accomplish. That being said, that 4th line is really one you don’t want to break up. Last night was like a reunion tour for them. First and fourth lines were the most effective. So what to do with the 2nd line? Wait for Zucker? Punt a first rounder, get a winger that will be in Pittsburgh for a few years and HOPE he meshes… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
8 months ago
Reply to  Bachinga

ZAR was supposed to be able to score some…that’s why he’s on the roster. He averages 2 goals a year. Sullys favorites don’t make up for lack of production.

David
David
8 months ago

They are not winning the SC this year. Goal tending isn’t good enough to make the difference. Jarry is staring to leak oil again, and teams are starting to push them around physically. And then there is this problem of not much secondary scoring. They played the easy part of their schedule the first part of the season. Now that they are playing the better teams, it is clear that they don’t have enough to win the SC.

Uros
Uros
8 months ago

I don’t know what I’m watching, but scoring doesn’t seem to be the issue for me. Yes, the middle 6, or rather the middle 5 have disappeared, but that does not account for all the goals we’re conceding. I might’ve missed something, but when were the playoffs about outscoring the other team? If they were, I wouldn’t worry too much, but since defense wins championships, I don’t see this one doing it. The poor performances of all our D men are beginning to creep up on Jarry too. You don’t want to see your goalie fending off breakaway, after breakaway,… Read more »

Katz
Katz
8 months ago

Lingering unanswered questions;

1) Was Malkin for Barkov a real thing? If so did Mario nix it?

2) Was Rutherford’s blockbuster trade for Ryan Reaves discussed with Sullivan before it occurred?

3) Who was the major factor in pushing for Brassard? Sullivan or Rutherford?

4) Does Dom Simon have pictures?

Last edited 8 months ago by Katz
Kris
Kris
8 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Yes because the entire problem with the team is Dom Simon. Guy is what he is. How about we talk about Rodrigues who had his 15 minutes of fame and has fallen off a cliff. Maybe Heinen is the guys McGinn is talking about? Some talent, but doesn’t seem to push every shift. We are what we are. Maybe two scoring lines and two checking lines given the amount of guys who WANT to work but are not the pure scorers. What happened to the “pairs” thing? Time to move Rust with Malkin and split the only 4 scorers onto… Read more »

Katz
Katz
8 months ago
Reply to  Kris

Simon is not the problem. He’s a very good guy. Simon is a symptom of the disease. The disease is Sullyitus.

Sullyitus: The metamorphosis of greatness to one of mediocrity by living in the past. Resistant to change. Stubbornness and deep reluctance to adjustment in spite of overwhelming evidence. Inception 2017-2018. Disease caused Plague of bad decisions. Theme song: ‘Glory Days’
Simon is simply a lesion on the body.

DaGama
DaGama
8 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Gotta agree our man Sully is super stubborn.

Ryan
Ryan
8 months ago

Very little chance hextall makes the moves needed. He is painfully conservative with trades