Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has a clear yet difficult task for the Penguins trade deadline effort: Get better.
The Penguins must catch the Tampa Bay Lightning, be able to hold off the deep Boston Bruins and skate with young upstarts within their division. To do all of the above, the Penguins must add a center with light feet who possesses either soft hands or hard shoulders.
The Penguins have wingers to deal. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong should be on the table, but only one should be allowed to leave unless the return is also a long-term victory.
Don’t be fooled. The Penguins win streak, and drastically improved play since mid-December is not the result of a better roster, though Jamie Oleksiak has improved their blue line, or by popping a couple of Advil for a Cup hangover. The Penguins surge rests on the shoulders of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Makin, who have been double shifting since head coach Mike Sullivan gave up on the idea of rolling four lines.
The Penguins can roll four sets of wingers, but they are not able to turn four centers to go with them.
Crosby is playing more minutes per game this season (20:50) than he has since 2014 (21:58). He was 26 back then. His average minutes will continue climb as the Penguins enter the teeth of their Metropolitan Division schedule, too. As this rate, he will finish well over 21 minutes per game.
THAT is why another center isn’t a luxury or a wish but is an absolute need. If the Penguins continue to drain Crosby’s battery now, he may not have much left for a late-May Game 7.
Cross Mark Letestu off the list. Too slow.
Matt Cullen seems to be the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ plan. Perhaps he could fill in for the rest of the regular season. But, if both sides were willing to make this deal, why hasn’t it happened yet?
Talks between the Penguins and Winnipeg Jets seem to have cooled. In fact, the Jets are thought to have made an aggressive run at Rick Nash.
Daniel Sprong is not a faded prospect. He’s still younger than New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang, but Sprong’s clock has started.
If Sprong is the prospect with a first-round pick which makes a Derick Brassard deal go, then the Penguins should do it before Senators GM Pierre Dorion can take the next phone call.
Sprong will be an RFA after the season.
In fact, if Guentzel or Aston-Reese are the Senators preferred choice, it’s an easy “yes.” Before Brassard was dealt to the offensive black hole of Ottawa in 2016, he was a 60-point center. That’s not third line material, that’s a reliable second line output, for most teams.
Guentzel is on pace for about 43 points this season. All of the Penguins wingers are talented, but without Crosby or Malkin, are any of them going to be 60-point players?
To be crystal clear, if the Penguins acquire Brassard, barring freak accidents or injuries, they will win the Stanley Cup. Crosby-Malkin-Brassard-Riley Sheahan. That group would again give the Penguins the best group of pivots in the league.
The most common question on Twitter has been: “Why haven’t the Penguins pulled the trigger on Michael Grabner already?”
The answer is simple. No less than eight teams, perhaps as many as 12, are vying for Grabner. Some reports say the price dropped from a first-round pick to a second-round selection and ‘something.’ New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton can afford to thoroughly examine each option and continue to play his bidders against each other.
There isn’t another talent like Grabner on the market; elite speed, goal-scoring talent, and a salary under $2 million.
However, Grabner’s likely rental status is the very definition of ‘How bad do you want it?’ While the Penguins would possess extreme lineup speed with Grabner (Grabner, Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary), the Penguins don’t need Grabner to put them over the top.
The ‘something’ will probably prove to be too rich for Rutherford’s blood unless he feels a quality center is out of reach.
The possibility seems to exist the Penguins could first swing a deal with a Western Conference team to acquire a first-round pick or asset to flip, then turn that asset to the Senators or Rangers.
Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin or Matt Hunwick earn dollars the Penguins also may need to shed.
Nibbling around the edges won’t make the Penguins better than the Lightning, but it doesn’t seem the Penguins are fishing for guppies, anyway.