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Molinari: Here’s What Matters Most in Penguins’ Deadline Trades



pittsburgh penguins jake guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins will play Edmonton this coming Sunday for the second time in eight days.

The Oilers should expect to face an opponent that is quite different — though, almost certainly, not better — than they one they shredded, 6-1, at Rogers Place Sunday.

That’s because losing their final three games on a four-game western road trip guarantees — or should have, anyway — that the Penguins will be sellers between now and the NHL trade deadline Friday at 3 p.m.

They have not done that since 2005-06, Sidney Crosby’s first season in the NHL.

Then again, they also haven’t been this hopelessly removed from serious contention for a playoff berth in many years.

While expecting this team to be prominent in the mix of clubs poised to compete for a championship wasn’t realistic — that’s a simple truth that’s been obvious to some for a number of years — neither was there reason to believe that the total of this group would prove to be so much less than the sum of its parts.

Not unless the Penguins had suffered a series of long-term, lost-time injuries to every key figure on the roster, anyway. And that didn’t happen.

The Penguins’ pratfall has left them nine points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division and 10 out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Yeah, they have losses-in-hand on all of the clubs they’re chasing, but so what?

Mathematical elimination from the playoff race won’t come for a few weeks. Practical elimination arrived a while back.

And so it is that Kyle Dubas, entering the stretch drive of his first year as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ president of hockey operations/GM, should be looking to aggressively sell off assets until mid-afternoon Friday.

He gave the Penguins ample time — way too much, really — to justify his faith in the roster he constructed.

They’ve failed. Emphatically.

Jake Guentzel, of course, is his most intriguing trade chip, assuming Guentzel doesn’t get a new contract in the next few days. He could be a difference-maker for a Cup contender, and what Dubas exacts from the teams intent on adding him should be more like a ransom than a mere return.

Whether Dubas will restrict his potential moves to the guys eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer — Jeff Carter (who has a no-movement clause), Jansen Harkins, Chad Ruhwedel, Alex Nedeljkovic and Guentzel — isn’t clear, but he shouldn’t.

For example, five players currently on the NHL roster — Valtteri Puustinen, Emil Bemstrom, Jonathan Gruden, P.O Joseph and Matthew Phillips — will be eligible for salary arbitration. Dubas has to consider the projected impact a ruling favoring the player could have on his salary structure.

And there’s nothing wrong with dealing someone who has time left on his contract and is playing pretty well.

If you want a meaningful return, you’d better be prepared to part with a contributor.

And the most important return Dubas can get as the deadline approaches figures to come not in the form of prospects or draft picks, but of the salary-cap space gained when contracts are moved off the payroll.

The NHL’s cap ceiling is projected to spike to $87.7 million in 2024-25, up from $83.5 million this season.

Factor in the cap space gained by moves leading up to the deadline, and Dubas could have the wherewithal to do a major makeover of his roster, whether it’s via trades and/or free agency, during the offseason.

There’s no assurance that players brought in will have the desired impact — Reilly Smith looked to be a capable replacement for Jason Zucker when Dubas acquired him from Vegas in 2023 — but unless management commits to an immediate rebuild, which is not going to happen, giving Dubas the financial latitude needed to overhaul the roster is their only hope of returning to relevance next season.

Attaining such a lofty — OK, not-so-lofty — objective looks to be a long shot, but it’s the only shot the Pittsburgh Penguins have at this point.