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Penguins Thoughts: Prepare for Karlsson; Pens’ Trade Chips



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson

ln an increasingly rare dateline, this comes from the home rink, and the Pittsburgh Penguins battle not only against the quality teams they are battling for a playoff spot but, like an old Polaroid of happier times, to finally recapture the best version of themselves.

With each passing day and each gut-punch loss, the Penguins get further from their goals and their potential.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The summer excitement almost bordered on jubilation when the Penguins and president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas pulled off a heist for defenseman Erik Karlsson. In the process, Dubas traded Jeff Petry, Mikael Granlund, and Jan Rutta, none of whom distinguished themselves in their time with the Penguins.

The number of games is getting smaller, and the number of wins needed is getting bigger.

No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this, but that matters no more than the iconic character Dante Hicks exclaiming for three movies, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”

The Penguins have five games in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers but trail them by 11 points, meaning they must win all five to be close to leapfrogging into a playoff spot.

Editor’s note: The original version listed the Penguins as nine points behind Philadelphia.

The Penguins trail the Detroit Red Wings by seven points with only three games in hand. Even if the Penguins win all three, they’re still short of both Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs, whom they trail by nine points.

Oh by the way, the New Jersey Devils have won two in a row and got Jack Hughes back from the injured list. New Jersey is ahead of the Penguins in the standings, too.

All of the teams in a playoff spot have won at least five of their last 10. The Penguins and the chasers have won no more than four.

Penguins Want-To?

My first thought is this team doesn’t have enough drive or desire to get there. They would have shown it already. It is inexplicable that for two seasons, they’ve talked about needing to be consistent. They’ve talked about bringing their best and the frustration after they don’t.

But the same record is still playing; need and regret aren’t good songs to put on repeat.

If Dubas is serious about getting this team into the playoffs, he doesn’t need blockbusters, but he needs a change in team construction and chemistry.

2. Erik Karlsson is done trying to fit in and ready to take over.

It has long seemed like Karlsson was trying to fit himself into the Penguins system rather than fit the system to Karlsson, and the results have been below expectations.

He’s ready to take the puck and lead.

That’s just my gut reaction watching him start to take over in Minnesota, then absolutely take the puck with impunity in Winnipeg. I think we’re about to see Karlsson go off, and that’s not a bad thing.

There are only three defensemen in the league, including Karlsson, who can play an offensive game like he does. The other two are Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.

Would the Penguins be so bad with a Sidney Crosby – Erik Karlsson core? Could Dubas remake the Penguins on that bedrock, now or in the summer?

3. Not All is What it Seems

The criticisms of Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust are both valid and ignore possible extenuating circumstances. You’ll notice neither have been able to produce and don’t look like themselves since they returned from upper body injuries. Rakell had a small spurt of offense before buying another ticket for the struggle bus. Rust hasn’t been himself with the puck, though his desire and competition level are still obvious.

Player intel is closely guarded, so don’t expect an expose, but you won’t see me criticizing them, either. It’s impossible to fathom that Rust is struggling due to a lack of effort.

Rust’s and Rakell’s struggles will put pressure squarely on Reilly Smith and a little on Jesse Puljujarvi. Smith is a scoring winger who’s not scoring, but like Karlsson, Smith played his best game in some time during the 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets last Saturday.

Maybe he, too, will let rip.

4. The Penguins’ Trade Chips/Deadline

The distance between the Penguins and the playoff line in the standings is both a mirage and a problem. Their games in hand on everyone is an opportunity, but asking them to win all five, or even all three, seems unrealistic.

Coach Mike Sullivan punted when PHN asked Wednesday morning if we’re getting into the “must” win territory. But the reality is they are. With every loss, they slip farther back.

Realize that they’re not racing against the end of the regular season but against the NHL trade deadline on March 8. If they’re realistically six points back, then it’s probably time to sell.

That would mean trading Jake Guentzel.

And it should mean putting a goalie on the trade block, too. Alex Nedeljkovic could quickly become a hot commodity for New Jersey or Edmonton, who don’t want to pony up the pebbles for Juuse Saros, John Gibson, or Jacob Markstrom.

Nedeljkovic could be a comfy mid-size acquisition that brings a healthy return because of his stellar play and his relatively minuscule salary ($1.5 million). It might not be out of the question to ask for a first-rounder because of the tight market and ease in fitting the salary, but a second-rounder with a little sweetener is more likely.