The Pittsburgh Penguins began the holiday break on Thursday night, but did so in a foul mood after a 4-3 OT loss to the division rival Carolina Hurricanes. The loss was far from a low point this season, but there was ample discontent at missing another chance to beat the division leaders, and how the game ended.
Evgeni Malkin probably didn’t plan to step forward to publicly claim responsibility, but when PHN approached him in the locker room, he didn’t defer by not talking to us, nor did he sweep his overtime mistake under the rug.
“Go ahead,” he said when I asked if he was available to speak.
It was a brave moment for the eminently quotable Malkin, who tried to forecheck Carolina defenseman Jacob Slavin behind the net on the first OT shift. It led to the Carolina game-winner and he owned it.
Fans quickly voiced anger following the game, but Malkin’s comments seemed to soothe the savage beast. Many Twitter comments and replies to Facebook quickly changed to an encouraging tone.
(Memo to athletes in all sports: A little honesty can instantly win over fans).
In a big-picture sense, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ anger is good.
There were points this season when the Penguins were playing disjointed, uninspired hockey. The special teams were doormats, the structure was haphazard, and losses mounted. Yet they didn’t seem angry during those dark moments when we wondered if significant changes were needed.
My colleagues and I had a few conversations on the subject. We were equally surprised and searched for the proper adjectives. Detached. Obtuse. Surprisingly, they showed little anger despite getting just three wins in 11 games.
One could very easily interpret the defiance on Sunday, when Brock McGinn said they owed Carolina one, and the anger on Thursday as a form of confidence.
That emotion was oddly missing during early-November losses. Defenseman Kris Letang dropped a great quote on PHN’s Dave Molinari on Tuesday, which was an indirect reference to the motivation during the losing streak.
“You’re like, ‘Oh (crap), we have to get going.’ You don’t want to dig yourself too deep (of a hole) because it’s too tough of a division, it’s too tough of a league, to come back,” Letang said.
Now that the Penguins are “going,” they haven’t slowed.
And only a team with genuine expectations gets angry after an OT loss, just the third point in nine games they missed. A team in the middle of the pack, one just hoping to make the playoffs, does not react like that.
Most teams would do backflips after gaining 15 of the last 18 points.
NHL Trade Market
The holiday break is often a prime chance to evaluate the team, the NHL trade market, and how the two may intersect.
This year is different. Very, very different.
GMs went for broke and succeeded.
According to CapFriendly.com, somewhere around 22 teams — if not more, when temporary cap space is removed — are pressed so tightly against the salary cap they have less than $1 million.
That means most teams, like the Penguins, don’t even have enough cap space for a call-up should a few players suffer minor injuries or illnesses.
With all of those sellers trying to peddle their wares, the buyers have held firm. The price to move a player with a heft salary is still to attach a first-round pick.
Hextall’s best move this season may have been one that wasn’t. He declined an offer from a Metro team to trade Jason Zucker over the summer with a first-round pick attached.
The Flyers reportedly shopped competent scorer James van Riemsdyk but balked at the Montreal Canadiens’ demand to include a top pick.
It might not seem fair that the cost to move just a few million dollars has gone from a lower-round pick to a premium, but the teams with salary-cap space have no other incentive to take on unwanted or overpaid players.
And that is why the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be in for a tough time.
Even if new owners now sign the paychecks, it would be maleficence for Hextall to trade away a first-round pick in the coming deep draft. In January of 2021, sources told PHN specifically that former owner Mario Lemieux wanted to hire Hextall because of his ability to build a prospect pool.
Hextall has the unenviable task of being in win-now mode, with the underlying task of winning later, too.
He fulfilled the first part with contracts to Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang that may exceed useful lengths. He’ll fulfill the latter by not parting with that first-rounder.
As silly as it might sound, the Penguins are just five points ahead of the New York Islanders (but with one game in hand), who are the first team out of the playoffs.
With a few injuries, bad luck, or simply other good teams passing them, the Penguins’ first-rounder could quickly become a top-10 pick (teams can only move up 10 places in the new NHL draft lottery).
Hextall has done very well by moving second- through fourth-rounders, acquiring Rickard Rakell and Jeff Carter in successive seasons.
However, short of stashing players in the minors for the $1.125 million savings, Hextall will need to be a magician at the 2023 NHL trade deadline to create enough cap space for a significant move.
Kasperi Kapanen remains an enigmatic figure. He didn’t have a shot attempt through 40 minutes on Thursday, and one had to search for him to know that he was playing. Then he was an energetic catalyst for several shifts in the third. The second year of his $3.2 million annual contract looms large.
That creates an imbalance and yet another obstacle in Hextall’s path.
Hextall is handcuffed and in a straitjacket. But so are most other GMs. If, or how, they escape will define the March 3 trade deadline.