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.