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Molinari: Adding Top-Six Winger Critical for Penguins, But So is Patience

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Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes

The Pittsburgh Penguins are running out of time.

Assuming that hasn’t already happened, of course.

While the wisdom of trying to transform an aging group that has sat out the Stanley Cup playoffs for two years in a row into a championship contender can — and has been — debated vigorously, ownership has made it clear that Kyle Dubas, the team’s president of hockey operations and general manager, has that mandate.

The Penguins, as currently constructed, have more than a few holes on their depth chart, with a goal-scoring winger to replace Jake Guentzel, a forward to add some offense to the bottom-six and a goalie to partner with Tristan Jarry prominent on that list.

Dubas has proven during his first year on the job that he’s willing to be bold and aggressive when trying to upgrade his lineup; remember, he’s the guy who put together the three-team trade that brought Erik Karlsson to the Penguins.

Before that, he had exploited Vegas’ salary-cap distress to acquire Reilly Smith as a replacement for second-line left winger Jason Zucker, who was poised to move on as a free agent. Although Smith proved to be a profound disappointment for much of the season, his career to that point suggested he was an excellent choice for the role he was brought in to fill.

That was particularly true because acquiring him cost the Penguins only a third-round choice in this year’s draft, although the early returns suggest the Golden Knights might actually have gotten the better of the deal. (Of course, assuming he’s still around this fall, it’s possible that Smith will become the two-way contributor his history says he could — and should — be for the Penguins.)

Precisely how Dubas will go about altering his roster isn’t known, since it could be done by any combination of trades, promotions from the American Hockey League and free-agent signings.

For now, the Penguins have 11 forwards, five defensemen and one goaltender on NHL-only contracts for 2024-25, and nearly $13 million in salary-cap space with which to work. None of the guys on two-way deals in Wilkes-Barre who are candidates to force their way onto the parent club this fall would have a seven-figure salary in the NHL.

Dubas was extremely active on Day 1 of free agency last summer, signing Ryan Graves, Lars Eller, Alex Nedeljkovic, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto. Ryan Shea and Joona Koppanen.

How much he’ll try to do on July 1 this year likely will hinge on what he’s able to accomplish via trade in the interim, but bringing in a reliable goal-scorer to play on the top two lines likely will force him to act quickly and spend generously. (Guentzel, of course, would be a perfect fit for the job, but since he’s 29 and the Penguins insist they want to get younger, it’s hard to imagine them making the long-term commitment that Guentzel surely will be able to command from his next employer.)

But even if Dubas doesn’t make a high-impact signing when free agency opens, he might be able to plug that top-six hole before training camp opens.

He might do it by working out a trade with a struggling club that is willing to part with a valuable asset — as San Jose did with Karlsson in 2023 — because it plans to go all-in on a rebuild, and is willing to suffer short-term pain in the standings for long-term gains.

Perhaps more likely is that a few teams will spend their way into having to part with a quality player or two, whether it’s because they go overboard in adding free agents or because they simply lack the cap space needed to retain everyone they would like to. That is what happened with Vegas and Reilly Smith, who had joined the franchise when it entered the league in 2017 and was a significant contributor to its Stanley Cup run shortly before the Penguins acquired him.

While there obviously are no guarantees, under that scenario, Dubas actually could end up being able to secure a better player — and at a lesser cap hit — via a trade than he would in free agency.

There are risks in relying on events to play out that way, of course, but the same is true of, say, trying to make a team better while also making it younger.

Naturally, it’s imperative that Dubas and his staff have a map for how they want to navigate this offseason. But it’s no less important that they be prepared — and sufficiently patient — to adapt to any detours or delays they encounter.