It’s not even June, and the Pittsburgh Penguins probably have not finished all of their internal reviews and organizational meetings. To make prognostications and predictions at this stage is more like trying to guess the weather next Thursday, but there are plenty of arrows pointing in specific directions.
We’ll circle back in September to see how we did.
I’m learning one little fact through Ron Hextall’s tenure: He’s not quick to act, no, but he’s precise. Jeff Carter and Rickard Rakell were shrewd gets. He also patched the Penguins’ blue line with a pair of depth d-men, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman. Both outperformed their roles.
I know fans want Jim Rutherford-level activity and chatter, combined with Jim Rutherford’s 2015-16 level of success. As GMJR hit home runs for a year, he began to swing and miss in 2018. Do you remember Tanner Pearson, Jack Johnson, Derick Brassard?
So, hyper-activity cuts both ways. However, Hextall does have a few opportunities to move contracts to save money and capitalize on bargains.
5 Pittsburgh Penguins Predictions:
5. Malkin meets the Penguins more than halfway.
Evgeni Malkin said, “I’m ready both ways.” And the reality is that he’s had more than a few opportunities in his career to go elsewhere. Sure, maybe his rockstar wife would prefer another city? Maybe he’d prefer a team with a few Russians or a larger Russian community? But he’s chosen to stay in Pittsburgh.
Could the Penguins get better with a second-line center who is faster and more linear? Probably. Pittsburgh-native Vincent Trocheck springs to mind. But if I have to bet–and I’m not confident–Malkin chooses to stay.
He’s not aging well. He’s a toe injury from completing the song Hands-Shoulders-Knees and Toes! Knees and Toes!
If he weren’t Evgeni Malkin, this would be an easy separation, but…
Prediction 5A: He signs for about $7 million AAV, but perhaps only two seasons?
4. Kris Letang Bolts
Count me firmly in the camp that Ron Hextall should move others to pay for Kris Letang. There are few, if any, viable options available. Jeff Petry? Colin Miller? The dropoff is steep, regardless of what message boards, including the one below (geez, some of you are stubborn and just unhappy!).
Letang wears his heart on his sleeve. He wants to stay. The Penguins can’t do any better.
And yet, in a reversal from above, this player will leave. Letang also needs to feel respected. He’s a premier RHD. In this market, he is THE premier RHD. He again placed near the top of defensemen scoring. He finished sixth with 68 points (10-58-68), behind such luminaries as Roman Jossi, Adam Fox, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, and John Carlson.
That’s the company Letang keeps. None of them would sign a $5 million contract, either.
Spare me the Letang hate. When hockey people start saying it, then I’ll listen.
Prediction 4A: He’ll get $9 million for four seasons, somewhere.
4B: Petry is the odds on favorite to replace Letang if he departs. Also, watch Filip Hronek on the NHL trade market.
3. Hextall restocks the Middle-Six
In consecutive postseasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins outplayed their opponent but were partly victimized by a lack of physical presence. In this case, physical would be defined in different ways. Against the New York Islanders, the Penguins didn’t win enough net battles and had trouble fighting through obstruction. Against the Rangers, they didn’t have anyone to tap Messieurs Lindgren or Trouba on the shoulder to politely ask that they stop flinging elbows with intent to injure, or Adam Fox would suffer the same fate.
The Penguins do need a bit of muscle.
That’s another reason I think it’s iffy at best if Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen return. Heinen is soft and may get expensive. The Penguins need a bit more scrappiness to push back when things go sideways when teams get too physical or take the vinegar out of the other team when the Penguins have a lead.
Prediction 3A: Kapanen’s rights have some value. Look for those to be discussed on the NHL trade market, especially as the Draft approaches.
2. Penguins Get a New Backup
Casey DeSmith turned his miserable season around. He was pretty good in the second half. But his star-crossed Penguins tenure may end. He bought a house in Pittsburgh because he was to be the backup three years ago. Then Tristan Jarry shoved past him and Matt Murray, and DeSmith had to spend a season with the WBS Penguins.
Last season, DeSmith was badly needed in the playoffs but was unavailable.
This season, DeSmith was badly needed in the playoffs but was unavailable.
Bad luck, yes. Tristan Jarry showed he’s the man. Playing on that broken foot in Game 7 was spectacular. If the Penguins won that game, he’s a legend. Jarry looked physically different this season. He stood taller on and off the ice. He spoke differently. He’s “the guy.”
The Penguins need a reliable backup.
Prediction 2A: No chance in hell it’s Marc-Andre Fleury. None.
1. The Penguins Will Get Better
Call it a hunch. Hextall has a chance to remake the team without gutting it. Here’s his big chance. I think everyone would like to bring back Rickard Rakell, but his contract status may not be cleared up until the Penguins have a bit more clarity on the big two.
But the wide-open forwards crew can be used to reestablish the Pittsburgh Penguins identity, whatever Hextall and Mike Sullivan decide that should be.
No, I don’t think most of the WBS Penguins crew are truly in the mix. Radim Zohorna was a cute story for a while and made me ponder his ceiling, but he didn’t deliver after his adjustment period ended. Drew O’Connor is a nice fourth-liner, but he’s not a great penalty killer, which makes him a bubble player.
There’s another handful of Penguins prospects from WBS, which Hextall specifically mentioned last week. There’s always hope for sale, especially in Pittsburgh, where prospects are fair-haired beauties without baggage. But don’t buy too much.
Jason Zucker’s long-term prognosis is cloudy. He took note on breakup day when he said the doctors were trying to figure out what comes next. I continue to watch my email for an update from the Penguins that he’s had surgery.
A healthy Zucker would be a blessing. An injured Zucker provides even more capital. The Penguins have about $23.2 million to spend, not counting any salaries that depart or long-term injury designations.
All of that uncertainty and need create Hextall’s big opportunity. There will be plenty of bargain shopping. Some grit. Jam. Some hands–perhaps Heinen does return if the Penguins can add other missing pieces.
It should be a fun offseason. There’s no secondary prediction needed for that.