The depth of the NHL free-agent market is currently more like a mud puddle. There are currently zero free agents, centers or wingers, who scored more than 21 points last season and the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason acquisitions might be over, save the training camp PTO or right-side defenseman.
The Penguins’ construction, or reconstruction, will likely carry into the season if not the 2022 NHL trade deadline. After a six, or even seven deep, center depth chart last season, the team now lacks center depth beyond their top four.
The great question mark awaits the Penguins, and their lineup is star center Evgeni Malkin’s medical prognosis. The Pittsburgh Penguins announced in June they would have an update on Malkin’s status in training camp. That’s probably a few weeks away, as the first Penguins preseason game is Sept. 27.
Factoring rookie camps, orientations, and COVID interference, the camp will probably be abbreviated, again–but hockey is just a few weeks away. Take the rays of sunshine as able.
Trying to avoid a Chicken Little assessment of Malkin, it’s probable he’s out for a while. However, the Penguins have also been wracked with injuries in each of the last three seasons. And two of the Penguins centers will be UFAs following the season; Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter will need contracts.
So, from restocking to need, Penguins GM Ron Hextall has multiple reasons to keep their eyes on the NHL trade market and centers that may become available.
Players with term are much more difficult to project. We’ll get to those players, but for now, we’re looking at the low-hanging fruit of rental players.
Centers who could ht the NHL trade market: Rentals
1. Shoot for the Stars: Tomas Hertl
The San Jose Sharks second-line center is both 27-years-old and a pending UFA. San Jose views Hertl as a core piece and part of their building, so a new contract is a likely outcome, but San Jose has pros and cons.
But we’ve also seen that situation before. If Hertl sours on the rebuild or overvalues himself, the trade winds will swirl.
If Hextall really wants to begin his team’s remake, a center in his 20s who can fill a top-six role would be a nice start. Hertl won’t command the ridiculous price the Buffalo Sabres are asking price for Jack Eichel, but something closer to the cost Carolina paid for Vincent Trocheck at the 2020 NHL trade deadline (Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, and prospects Eetu Luostarinen and Chase Priskie).
The cost for Trocheck was two bottom-six forwards and at least one solid prospect on the cusp of the NHL, though Carolina didn’t miss them too much.
Trocheck and Hertl have similar statistics. If the contract situation in San Jose heads south, Hertl would be the kind of center who could play behind Sidney Crosby, fortify the Penguins lineup and allow the team to take some pressure off Malkin.
The former “teenage mutant ninja Hertl” would not command a king’s ransom as a rental, but the price would be stiff. He’s had great seasons with 74 points, including 35 goals in 77 games (2018-19) and mediocre seasons such as 46 points in 79 games (2017-18). Last season, he was solid with 43 points (19-24-43) in 50 games.
Such a deadline acquisition would likely cost multiple picks, including a second-rounder and a good prospect as the starting point. A first-round pick isn’t out of the question.
We would have put Trocheck on the list, but playing for a Stanley Cup contender (Carolina) likely means they hold onto him.
2. Short-Term Test? Max Domi
Pittsburgh Hockey Now reported in the summer of 2018 that the Pittsburgh Penguins made a substantial offer to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi and were somewhat surprised that Arizona dealt him to the Montreal Canadiens (for Alex Galchenyuk). Former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was believed to have offered Conor Sheary or Bryan Rust, and Dominik Simon.
Other outlets later confirmed the report, but Domi’s stock has fallen since then despite scoring 72 points in his first season with Montreal. Last season, he scored just 24 points (9-15-24) in 55 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The season prior, he scored 44 points in 71 games.
Domi, 26, has a contract with a $5.3 million AAV that expires after this season, and his lower production levels could make him a prime target. If the market is soft, the Penguins have a couple of similar players on similar salaries, which would allow Columbus to recoup an asset. The Penguins also have a full boat of draft picks to sweeten the deal.
Domi will be out until December after shoulder surgery, so the sides will have plenty of time to talk new contract or make future plans, but precious little time to see if he can rebound to top center form.
Columbus also needs a No. 1 center, so he is likely a contract target. We’re not sure if Domi could net a sweet return for Columbus or be a salary swap. His pending UFA status leans us towards the latter, but a center who scored 72 points a few years ago should draw interest.
3. One more run? Joe Pavelski
Pavelski, 37, is in Dallas for another run. However, while Pavelski was hot last season, the Dallas Stars didn’t make the playoffs. Another mediocre Dallas season could see “Little Joe” on the NHL trade block, at his request or theirs.
If the Penguins need a short-term center this season, maybe Joe wants to ride shotgun with Sid, who was the captain that took the Cup from him and Joe Thornton in 2016.
Hextall acquired Jeff Carter for a third and fourth-round pick. Pavelski may be closer to a second and fourth-rounder ask. Pavelski had 51 points (26-25-51) in 56 games last season, and another big campaign could even increase that price.
4. Your Bad Contract for Ours: Victor Rask
Rask has one year remaining on his $4 million AAV. The center that Minnesota previously acquired in a swap of struggling players has not lit the lamp with the consistency of a second-line center, nor has he posted enough points to merit anything close to a $4 million cap hit.
From the Penguins perspective, perhaps Minnesota GM, former Penguins AGM, Bill Guerin, is a fan of Marcus Pettersson?
Rask is unlikely to fetch much on the NHL trade market after scoring just 39 points in his first 120 games with Minnesota. He’s not a great skater or a bruiser, but a team that needs a short-term center could add a body and move a contract or later-round pick if cap space is open.