The Metro Division Arms Race, and How the Penguins Keep Pace
The Metropolitan Division is full of short drives, shorter plane rides, and a long history of good, frothy hate. The battles have extended beyond the playing surface. For about 40 years, the division has been a battleground not for the faint, both on the ice and at the NHL trade deadline, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and their rivals annually make the spectacle headlines as big name players funnel to the Metro.
Rickard Rakell landed with the Penguins last season.
Last week, Bo Horvat was rehomed to the New York Islanders. Thursday, Vladimir Tarasenko woke up a St. Louis Blues winger and went to bed a New York Rangers winger.
Penguins fans anxiously wondered (or demanded) aloud when their time would come, when GM Ron Hextall would make a move that would be celebrated for decades to come.
Here’s the thing for 2023, the Penguins don’t need the big fish. Where would Horvat or Tarasenko play in the Penguins’ lineup? Would you move Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to the wing as the Islanders did with Mathew Barzal for Horvat? (hint: no)
Would Tarasenko produce significantly more than Bryan Rust beside either of those centers? How would either Tarasenko or Rust fare on the third line beside Jeff Carter?
Would the Penguins’ lineup be that much better? No, not really. And certainly not for a first-rounder.
And therein lies the rub for the Pittsburgh Penguins — it’s not about getting more goals from the top; it’s about giving fewer goals from the bottom, giving less puck possession, and being able to build momentum from multiple points in the lineup.
The Penguins excelled over the last couple of seasons when their third or fourth line matched up well against the opponent’s top line. Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn (and Zach Aston-Reese) defending the best freed Sidney Crosby to torture third-liners.
It worked even better when Blueger and linemates would chip in a few goals, too. I had forgotten how much I’ve written about that aspect of the Penguins game over the past few years. It seemed I was forever praising the low-paid grinders while Crosby and Jake Guentzel filled the net.
But that’s a formula for success.
The Rangers had to give a first-round pick for Tarasenko, and they got better, but a move like that would not have restored the balance to the Penguins’ lineup.
The Islanders got MUCH better with Horvat, and that part should worry the Penguins and Penguins fans. Anytime a pursuer for the last playoff spot significantly improves, it’s a cause for concern.
But the greater cause for concern for Penguins and faithful is the lack of a bottom-six. If Hextall figures out the puzzle and revamps the third line, then we’ll know where the Penguins stand. They need a line to defend the Carolina Hurricanes’ top unit with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen or a hard third line to go against Jordan Staal.
The Penguins need a third line to defend Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Or Krejci and Pasta.
The Penguins don’t have that, and as a result, their playoff hopes are in jeopardy. If they do make it to Lord Stanley’s big dance, teams will exploit that matchup even more.
So, it is OK if the Penguins miss out on Horvat, Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, Brock Boeser, James van Riemsdyk, Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, or Timo Meier.
They will and should pass on most of the above (OK, Bertuzzi would look great next season). No, the types of folks who could make the Pittsburgh Penguins a much better team will cost a lot less than the big names. The Penguins figuratively need a defibrillator fully charged and applied directly to the chest of to their third line.
We’ve been through some potential Penguins’ trade targets at the third-line center, including Adam Henrique.
A few more names look like they will become available.
Maybe it’s a third line winger with some sandpaper and energy that jumpstarts Jeff Carter.
Maybe the Penguins need both.
And that’s where the Penguins need to start. And perhaps end.
So, don’t get worked up over the Metro arms race. The Penguins aren’t in that battle this season. They added their big guns in July.
Now it’s about fortifying the lineup.