The beginning of this story was written somewhere between Denver and Dallas in late March. The thoughts then were the same as the thoughts now. The Pittsburgh Penguins were a jumbled, sloppy mess. Somewhere beneath their disheveled and sometimes frustrated exterior still lies the heart of the champion. It’s old. It doesn’t beat like it once did, and it takes a little more drama or fear to get it pumping at its ideal rate.
A new GM will soon get a crack at open heart surgery, but to repair the blockages and damage, very difficult decisions will be made about the present vs. the future.
One ideal must be pursued. They cannot both serve as dominating pursuits simultaneously. One can balance the other, but pursuing both means neither is served.
The new GM, almost presumably Kyle Dubas or his hand-picked choice, must revitalize the Penguins’ lineup. I’m not sure even the players would tell you they should be back in the same form. However, the blockages that must be cleared can’t be removed easily.
Jeff Carter is on a 35+ contract. That means whether he plays in Germany, Wilkes-Barre, or sits at home, he counts full boat against the Penguins’ salary cap.
PHN has been shocked to learn how little trade value Mikael Granlund has. The deal to acquire him from Nashville was every bit as bad as some Penguins fans feared. Through a mutual friend, one potential GM candidate was quoted as saying the first act would be to buy out Granlund.
While I disagree, because it would mean four years of paying Granlund, that should give you context for how difficult the next GM’s job will be.
We’ll table the Tristan Jarry and Jason Zucker decisions for now.
To revamp the Pittsburgh Penguins, the new GM must move out players other teams won’t be keen to acquire. Translation: Dubas, er, the new GM, would necessarily affix assets to those players to facilitate a trade.
Putting the decision into context, is it worth giving up Owen Pickering to move Carter or Granlund? Is it worth giving up the first-round pick to move anyone?
Here’s an armchair GM absurdity I can’t stop pondering: Trade down in the first round, use the acquired assets to move players, and maybe keep a piece for themselves. It would require prime Craig Patrick-level horse-trading and a lot of luck.
The other armchair GM absurdity I can’t stop pondering is trading up in the draft for Matvei Michkov. If Columbus balks at No. 3, all bets are off about where he could go. Michikov is under a KHL contract through 2026, but he’s probably the second-best player in the draft, and the Penguins have a player who is owed a few favors back in Russia. Evgeni Malkin is no Alex Ovechkin in terms of “friends of Putin,” but perhaps he has some pull.
Trading up would cost a real asset, such as an All-Star winger. Or it would take a top prospect and an additional significant piece.
Those are absurdities, but they point out that the next GM will have to figure out a way to revamp the roster. Some of the moves will be gambles because the Penguins are not in a position of strength.
But if they don’t revamp for the present, what’s the point of keeping Kris Letang and Malkin? For that matter, what’s the point of keeping Sidney Crosby?
There, I wrote it. Loyalty is admirable, but what’s the point of loyalty if it serves no greater purpose? Without purpose, loyalty becomes comfort and nothing more.
Those players are too proud to be dancing bears in a sideshow of failure.
And yet, with a few moves, I firmly believe the Penguins could become a playoff team again. A revamped third line, targeting speed through free agency, and the team could again be more competitive than frustrated.
The good news is the game is absolutely moving toward puck-pursuit instead of possession, and that next evolution opens a window for the Penguins to target speed — cheap speed — through free agency. Get players who can forecheck and transition. Even use the Penguins’ tradition and existing structure to rescue a few castoffs from other organizations.
See also: Vegas Golden Knights. The next William Carrier and William Karlsson are out there. Covering the Golden Knights, I see them as the 1970s Oakland Raiders, a team of misfits and castoffs desperately wanting that second chance. Or third. And they can feel the opportunity to be different in the desert sun.
Revamping the Penguins’ blue line won’t be easy, either, but either size or speed is needed. The Penguins’ blue line is caught in the middle, with a little bit of speed, a bit of size with Jan Rutta and Jeff Petry, and a bit of offense.
They have a little bit of everything, but not enough of one thing to execute a strategy built on an identity.
But for now, Kyle Dubas, er, the next Penguins GM, is inheriting a mess.