The Pittsburgh Penguins have won five in a row and six of their last seven. More importantly, the Penguins have won the games convincingly, except for their loose victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. The Penguins have surged past Philadelphia and Boston in the East Division, and the management’s outlook on any Penguins trades is most likely evolving.
However, a Penguins trade or two is likely necessary. Sunday is the first day in which the Penguins are in the playoffs regardless if both the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins each won the two games they have in hand. The Penguins are gaining traction while each of the other teams is beginning to tread water and seriously poke around some big names on the same NHL trade market.
The Penguins are unlikely to have the ability to acquire one of those big names to which both Philadelphia and Boston have been linked. Mattias Ekholm, Rickard Rakell, Kyle Palmieri, and Jake Virtanen are some of the names credibly tossed around in connection with the Penguins’ top opponents.
As of the clock forward Sunday morning, the Penguins lead Boston by three points and Philadelphia by six.
Any Penguins trade is unlikely to have big names coming this way because the team doesn’t have the wherewithal to pull that level of talent or engage in a bidding war. However, it will be interesting to see the influence of President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke, who is more swashbuckling, on GM Ron Hextall, who has been more conservative in the past. Or, perhaps Hextall’s influence on Burke.
Either way, we’re all watching the pair with the same curiosity.
One thing to note, the Penguins do not have a surplus of 2021 draft picks. They currently have a second-rounder, a fifth, and three seventh-round picks.
Not Penguins Trade Chips?
The Penguins neither have picks nor more than a few prospects on the near horizon: Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, P.O. Joseph are the prospects. We may add 23-year-old Jesper Lindgren, who is on loan to his Swedish Elite League team, to the list.
Before you ask, undrafted college free agent Josh Maniscalco from Arizona State has some interesting skills for a defenseman. Still, he’s played only two AHL games this season and is not yet a serious NHL contender or trade chip.
Generally, teams selling rentals like picks and/or prospects, which puts the Penguins in a tough position — No team out of the Stanley Cup hunt wants to add salary this year. NONE. Remember that key detail.
According to CapFriendly.com, the good news is that the Penguins will have about $3.89 million in cap space at the trade deadline. They could have an additional $5.5 million more pending Jason Zucker’s prognosis and time frame.
Marcus Pettersson is probably off the table unless the Penguins also acquire another LHD or are confident in Mark Friedman, who was claimed off waivers, and his ability to play on his backhand.
As much as we’re all ready to watch P.O. Joseph, next year is more plausible for the young defenseman than dropping him into a playoff chase. In his month of NHL action, we saw his high ceiling and his current station, which is a little less than top-six worthy.
Pettersson is more likely to be a summer deal if he becomes a trade piece at all, but he’s not completely out of bounds because of Friedman. Friedman has experience playing the left side in the minors. He could be the piece that makes a few players more expendable.
And Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are off limits. Stop it. Nope. Not happening. Scandinavia is Sweden, Finland, and in this case, No-Way.
Likeliest Penguins Trade Chips for 2021 NHL Trade Deadline
1. 2022 Second-Round/Third-Round picks.
The Penguins have a full complement of picks in 2022 (finally). Even former General Manager Jim Rutherford, who gave away first-round picks like Oprah gave away favorite things, admitted the team had to keep picks in the future. So, we’ll make an assumption the Penguins 2022 first-rounder is unavailable.
The 2021 NHL Draft may be deep, but it’s not sexy, certainly not at the top. That may help Hextall peddle his 2022 wares. Further enhancing the value of the 2022 picks are the junior league seasons. Presumably, they will return to normal next season, allowing scouts to better look at players next year.
This year feels like a crapshoot to everyone involved.
A second-round pick can usually get a pretty solid rental. A third-rounder can get a bottom-six center/forward, as Rutherford did last season with Patrick Marleau.
A bottom-six center and winger would be ideal for the Penguins, but we’ll really break down the Penguins trade needs in the following stories over the next couple of days.
2. Juuso Riikola
Last season, team sources detailed how much the Penguins liked Riikola but were disappointed in parts of his development. The PHN opinion is the Penguins erred in their development of Riikola. From Finland and the larger rinks, Riikola made the Penguins NHL squad out of training camp in 2018 but has played only 75 games in two-plus seasons.
Riikola, 27, should have been sent to the AHL when he was eligible. He needed ice time in North American games. Last season, a source said the Penguins felt they would lose Riikola if they sent him to the AHL, so he’s been a captive.
Last January, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan summed it up thusly.
“Juuso is a mobile skater. I think there’s another level of offense to Juuso’s game. We’d like to see him be a little bit more active off the rush,” Sullivan said. “Off the offensive blue line, he can really shoot the puck. He’s a good passer. He’s got good instincts.”
There’s a grittiness to his game. But in limited opportunities, he’s been mistake-prone. Such things happen without development or game action. Perhaps he would substitute for a prospect for a team that sees the potential value of a player who was the QB on the Penguins PP2 when in the lineup.
3. Jason Zucker?
If Jared McCann is healthy, a Penguins trade could involve Jason Zucker (if he’s healthy enough). The Zucker-Malkin combo was a flop and paying a former 30-goal scorer $5.5 million to play in the third line, or worse, would be less than ideal.
Zucker’s health is an unknown variable, shrouded in secrecy like most hockey injuries. However, he fetched a first-round pick and a top prospect one year ago. The Penguins would likely take a loss, but he could bring back a valuable return.
4. Cody Ceci
Ceci has been excellent for the Penguins. The ONLY way it makes sense to deal him would be to get something of equal value in return.
It would also be good asset management to flip Ceci, on a one-year deal, for a long-term asset. Though getting someone more valuable than a second-pairing RHD would be pretty difficult. The Penguins do have Friedman seemingly waiting in the wings for a shot.
Even as a UFA-to-be, Ceci likely has more value to the Penguins than he would on the NHL trade market. Count this as very unlikely, but his contract status means we can’t rule it out.
5. Even Money Out / NHL Player
Beyond the paltry offerings above, the Penguins Hockey Operations team of President Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall certainly could move an NHL salary in exchange for a commensurate NHL player and salary.
With Friedman, could one of the Penguins back-four defensemen be had? None of the defense crew except for Letang and Brian Dumoulin should be untouchable.
But that’s about it. Big trades often take several months to materialize, and Hextall has only been on the job for about two months.