First, it was a backup goalie or a 1-A goalie to shepherd Tristan Jarry through his maturation process and be a prime insurance policy in the playoffs. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins trade potentials were updated to an experienced backup and a right-side defenseman. While those issues have been debated, GM Ron Hextall may be forced to hit the NHL trade market for more serious needs.
In fact, the Penguins trade board should include a scoring middle-six winger.
Such players are not inexpensive on the NHL trade block unless they have an expensive contract. Perhaps more than anything, the Penguins are short at least one middle-six winger. Casey DeSmith appears to be rebounding from a brutal first half and returning to form as a competent backup, again. Chad Ruhwedel, who signed a new two-year extension on Saturday, has been a steady, quiet presence as the sixth defenseman.
In a salary-cap world, teams can’t have All-Stars in every role. Steady also wins the race.
However, since the return of Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ middle has been inconsistent, at best. Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen had combined for zero points in the last 10 games until Sunday.
Rodrigues’s 18-game futility ended Sunday with a power-play goal. Kapanen remained scoreless.
Rodrigues raced to 30 points, and the sky appeared to be the limit as he aggressively handled the puck with intent and purpose. He toe-dragged around defensemen and snapped hard wrist shots, as well as dug for pucks along the wall, then pressured opponents for scoring chances.
Such things–many of those things–have been missing for weeks. Coincidentally, or not, his disappearance coincided with Evgeni Malkin’s arrival. Confidence, mindset?
Kasperi Kapanen. Much has been said and written. The maddening halts just across the blue line. The lack of impact. Where have those intense backchecks leading to turnovers gone? Kapanen has had a few runs this season with good statistics. The scoresheet embellished his performance, which wasn’t what the Pittsburgh Penguins hoped or needed.
Head coach Mike Sullivan pushed Kapanen in the offseason and preseason. Optimism abounded. Remember the preseason headline, “Sullivan is Pushing Kapanen, Do the Penguins Have an Emerging Star?” You can read it here.
Jason Zucker had core muscle surgery on Jan. 25 and remains out. There isn’t an official timetable for his return, and he is not yet skating. However, even when healthy, Zucker’s production has paled compared to expectations. He has just 13 points (6-7-13) in 31 games.
All of this means GM Ron Hextall could be forced to spend more than he wants at the NHL trade deadline.
Wingers to Watch on the NHL Trade Market
Money will be a factor for any top-six winger. Some creative solutions will be necessary unless Jason Zucker remains on LTIR for the remainder of the regular season, or the Penguins deal corresponding salary.
Max Domi, C/LW
The Columbus Blue Jackets sent a pair of scouts to the Penguins vs. Toronto game on Thursday. The Penguins have recently scouted the Columbus Blue Jackets. So, there’s a possible connection.
The Penguins need a middle-six winger and Domi is having a fine year with 23 points (9-14-23) in 38 games. He’s a rental because his two-year deal with a $5.3 million AAV expires in July.
Domi is a lefty who can play center or LW. His creative game could be a good fit beside Evgeni Malkin or Jeff Carter. He’s not a gritty player, but he’s not as soft as he once was.
The going rate for such a player is probably a second-round pick, give or take a smidge. If Columbus eats salary, the price could jump to a second-rounder plus a prospect. If multiple teams come calling, the price goes up, too.
Dark horse in Columbus: Jakub Voracek. He’s expensive ($8.25 million AAV), but the 32-year-old winger and Hextall had a long history in Philadelphia. Voracek is piling up assists with 34 points (2-32-34) in 47 games. Perhaps he could feed Big Jeff Carter or Evgeni Malkin?
James van Riemsdyk, LW
We know Hextall likes players that he knows. Mark Friedman. Jeff Carter. Those were his first moves as Pittsburgh Penguins GM and both were players from Hextall’s former tenures with the Philadelphia Flyers and LA Kings.
Hextall signed JVR to a five-year deal in 2018. That Hextall didn’t survive the Philadelphia Flyers power struggle beyond November of that year only underscores that van Riemsdyk was Hextall’s choice.
The gritty 6-foot-3, 217-pound winger can score but he’s seen better days. Philadelphia is in the tank for the second consecutive season and his numbers are free falling. In 49 games, he has only 20 points (11-9-20). Last season, he popped for 43 points (17-26-43) in 56 games.
He can be a power forward and Philadelphia is on the verge of trading Claude Giroux, signaling a rebuild, or at least a retool.
Rivalry is the first compounding issue. Money is the second. van Riemsdyk is in the fourth year of the five-year deal with a $7 million AAV. That will be difficult or next to impossible for the Penguins to fit under their cap. Perhaps this is a good hockey trade potential–the Flyers have a player who is scuffling in Philly, and so do the Penguins (OK, a couple, including Zucker).
van Riemsdyk’s salary and cratered production this season should lessen the price tag. Philadephia might eat salary, too? A big body on Malkin’s LW, who can score?
Brock Boeser, RW
Forget J.T. Miller.
Miller will cost a pretty penny in return. He has 50 points (18-32-50) in just 48 games and is in the fourth year of a bargain five-year deal that carries a $5.25 million AAV.
Such an NHL trade get would surely cost the Penguins pieces they do not want to give up, including and not limited to a first-round pick, a top prospect, and maybe Kasperi Kapanen, too.
Boeser, 24, is on the top Canucks line, but his name is floating about on the NHL trade market. Vancouver needs to make changes and there exists concern in Vancouver about his impact and grittiness. He will be an RFA after this season, but his current salary is $5.875 million.
Rutherford may have to eat salary or take a little less in return if he decides to deal the RW who has 28 points (15-13-28) in 45 games.
Artturi Lehkonen, RW
Lehkonen, 26, has developed a little edge to his game. The winger is playing with sandpaper and some grit in Montreal. He’s currently pulling fourth-line duty, but has the skills to be a solid third-line contributor. Heck, with Evgeni Malkin, he could be a second-line RW? In 46 games with the hapless Canadiens, Lehkonen has a more than respectable 20 points (7-13-20).
The Washington Capitals are already fishing around. Lehkonen will be an RFA with arbitration rights after this season and makes $2.3 million. Make no mistake, he is the sleeper on the NHL trade market. At 6-foot, 176 pounds, he’s not a bruiser, but he has some grit and finishing ability.
Lehkonen’s price tag may be higher than you expect because his salary is affordable. The Penguins could afford him with a couple of demotions.
Jared McCann, C/LW
Last, but certainly not least. Perhaps the most likely candidate: Jared McCann.
The Pittsburgh Penguins know him well. He knows the Penguins well. If not for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, McCann would likely still be a Penguins forward. The streaky winger-slash-reliable center has become the occasional top-line center for the Kraken and McCann is performing well. He has 32 points, including again hitting 20 goals.
McCann, 25, carries only a $2.95 million AAV. Hextall was seen engaged in extended conversations with Seattle AGM Jason Botterill last week in Boston.
The knock against McCann has been playoff scoring. In 12 playoff games over three series with the Penguins, he has just two assists.