In case Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall needed to be reminded, the NHL trade deadline is just five days away. There is a fine line between watching the sky fall and needing a little bit of help. The Penguins lost two straight games and gave up a whopping 15 goals, including 14 with a goalie in the cage. It’s not an ideal pair of games, but guess how many NHL teams lose two straight games and look bad doing it.
Yeah, 31. Every single NHL team will in every season lose a pair of stinkers. Fans will wonder. Or over-react. The locker room will say things like, “unacceptable” or “we have to be better.”
And, in most cases, the team responds and is, in fact, better.
Expect the Pittsburgh Penguins to be better on Thursday night against the New York Rangers. In part, the Penguins will be better on Thursday because they can’t be any worse but also because the problems are fixable.
“We’re getting a little bit too ahead of ourselves offensively. Sometimes we’re cheating for offense,” said McCann. “You can’t play that way, especially against a fast team like (New York) that has a good transition game. We’re going to learn from it. We’re not going to whine about it.”
That’s the good news.
So, what does this have to do with the NHL trade deadline, Kingerski? We’re getting there.
To translate McCann’s criticism, “cheating” for offense means several things, including leaving defensive posts for offensive chances. It sounds good on paper, but it has been the bane of hockey player seven before the first professional league began in Pittsburgh around 1904.
(You didn’t know the first professional hockey team and league began in Pittsburgh, did you?)
When players “try” to create offense but abandon their responsibilities, bad things happen. That part is easily fixable, and the players who are left on the Pittsburgh Penguins healthy roster are generally good defensively.
That’s more good news.
However, two scenarios are unfolding, which could define the Penguins’ “win now” season under Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke. The scenarios begin and end with Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen. And maybe Brandon Tanev, too.
We expect Tanev back sooner as his “week to week” injury usually means two or three weeks. However, Tanev’s second upper-body injury only three days after he returned to the lineup on April 1 is a cause for concern. Tanev provides the Penguins with much-needed energy and tempo.
Without talent, the Penguins need more Tanev.
Oh, and we’ll find out more on Wednesday about Penguins defenseman John Marino who left Tuesday’s game in the third period. Keep that in your back pocket for now.
Pittsburgh Penguins NHL Trade Deadline Scenario 1:
Neither Malkin nor Kapanen has resumed skating. That should send worry through the Penguins organization. If either is out long term, the Penguins have absolutely no reason to admit that because it would expose the depth of their need, but it should absolutely mean the Penguins are more aggressive in the final days leading to Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Malkin played with one arm through the 2017 NHL playoffs, but the Penguins cannot afford a one-armed second-line center this time.
Nor can they afford a gimpy Kapanen with peanut butter packed in his skate (Peter Taglianetti, 1991 reference).
The regular season ends one month from Sunday, and the playoffs may begin right away. If the Penguins will be without a healthy Malkin for the start of the playoffs, they will need a good third-line center to fill the void now. Or Hextall could pursue a discounted offensive center; the Montreal Canadiens acquisition of Eric Staal set the market at a third and fifth-rounder.
Would Hextall’s old friends in Los Angeles help him pry Scott Laughton out of Philadelphia? Or would Chuck Fletcher smell that one a mile away?
The Penguins already had needs at the NHL trade deadline. How great those needs are is only known by a few in the organization. This dark scenario means the Penguins have to be aggressive at the deadline to have any chance.
NHL Trade Deadline Scenario 2:
The other scenario is Malkin and Kapanen will be back within a couple of weeks, and the team can hang on for a while longer. They can use up their nine-point playoff cushion, win a few games with gritty hockey, and then explode with a healthy (and rested) roster.
If Malkin is expected back within a couple of weeks, the Penguins’ need for depth at center is greatly reduced, but upgrading either Frederick Gaudreau and Mark Jankowski would help. PHN has previously downplayed the need for a center, but as Malkin’s injury has dragged on, the need grows.
Not even Teddy Blueger’s return could add enough depth in the middle for truly solid depth.
The Penguins temporarily need a legit third-line center, which would allow them to move McCann back to the wing to bolster their offense. Frederick Gaudreau seems to be a competent NHL center, but being a third-line center is a big ask.
Gaudreau is a fourth-line center. He must avoid the potential exhale after returning to the NHL and avoid the regress to the player that was banished to the AHL.
A good bottom-six center gives the Penguins insurance in the future and help now.
The Penguins also need depth wingers. Apologies to the Penguins fans embrace of 6-foot-7 forward Radim Zohorna. He’s not yet shown an ability to impact games at the NHL level. A fourth-liner needs to grind in the corners, be hard on the puck, and be able to play some grimy hockey.
Zohorna plays a finesse game. He needs more seasoning in the AHL.
Colton Sceviour is an OK option, but his impact has been muted. Except for a few games, he’s been vanilla and doesn’t provide a physical presence. Rookie Drew O’Connor falls under the same umbrella.
The above is exacerbated pending Tanev’s situation.
We also haven’t touched on the Penguins issues with the net-front in the defensive zone.
“Like we’ve been talking about–defending the net front and the high-scoring areas,” Marcus Pettersson said. “I think teams have gotten way too many chances from those spots, and in this league, there are too good players [sic] to give up that many chances from there.”
Defending the net-front was an issue in 2016, too. Teams can defend the net with a team effort and with counter measures, such as keeping the puck.
Perhaps that’s an issue that is unsolvable with external help at the trade deadline.
Eventually, the Penguins will get healthy. Maybe. So, their needs are tempered by the possible lack of future opportunities. It’s a sticky situation that probably prohibits the Penguins from investing heavily in a player beyond a rental.
The Penguins’ last two games should not cause panic, but the team’s great potential is a reason to be aggressive. With a little bit of help, this season could be one the Penguins remember fondly.
Five days and the clock is ticking.
Previous Trade Deadline Analysis:
Can the Penguins afford to use a defenseman as trade bait?
Establishing the Penguins trade pieces.