The Pittsburgh Penguins are not yet establishing a base for any post-Crosby era. Signing Bryan Rust on Saturday seemed to be less of a divining rod of future intentions and more effort to remain competitive right now. Whether or not Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin return, Penguins GM Ron Hextall said the team is trying to win now.
It’s still about a Stanley Cup, and FSG ownership is on board with Hextall’s vision.
But the “how” remains sketchy. Hextall’s current plan seems to be more reactive to external decisions than an internal path. Reactions are where mistakes happen.
“Geno’s obviously been a great player, one of the greatest in the history of the game. And we’d like to keep him as a Pittsburgh Penguin for the rest of his career. In a perfect world, Geno retires a Penguin. And I think Tanger is the same… They’re generational players,” Hextall said. “…We have some some issues and areas that we have to work through in terms of the salary cap, everything’s got to match up, and it’s a puzzle.”
It sure is a puzzle. Hextall seemed sincere in his desire to re-sign Malkin and Letang, especially Malkin. Read what you will into Hextall’s immediate praise of Malkin, “and Tanger, too.”
But why are both sides just finding out what comes next? Shouldn’t that have been known before now? Instead of weeks to reassemble or retool a team, Hextall could have had a year or months, including options at the NHL trade deadline.
Don’t forget RFAs Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen. Each is owed a decision or qualifying offer, too. Hextall said those decisions haven’t yet been made. Since each is arbitration-eligible, the Penguins can’t make those offers or decisions until they know if they’re spending on Malkin and Letang.
Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin might come back. They might not. The Penguins may have much the same team that lost their fourth-straight opening playoff round or scramble to replace Letang and Malkin. Nazem Kadri and Vincent Trocheck will headline the UFA centers market, which means their price tag will be steep and there will be fierce competition for their services.
Hextall appeared to say the Penguins would not count on Jeff Carter to be their second-line center should Malkin depart, but there aren’t many options on the free-agent market.
“First and foremost, we would like to sign Geno. So we’ll work through that. And then if at some point we realize that can’t happen, then we’ll certainly look elsewhere,” Hextall said.
In the weakened Metro Division, the Penguins figure to take advantage of the suddenly lost New York Islanders, the imploding Philadelphia Flyers, and the even more rapidly aging Washington Capitals. So, opportunity remains.
But what of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ future? We’re into crunch time, and no one is quite sure what comes next.
Count this business owner as one who hates to wait on others, but it sometimes works to your advantage. Knowing what the other side wants is crucial.
But signing Rust only keeps the Penguins competitive; it doesn’t exactly reveal the grand plan, yet.
Now comes the hard part.
With Guentzel-Crosby-Rust, Tristan Jarry in net, and even a mediocre blue-line without Kris Letang, the Penguins are a playoff-worthy team. They’re not a Cup-worthy team.
To be a “good team,” the Penguins need a better middle-six, and that is where Hextall must put his resources. However, there are teams with more resources and fewer inhibitions. How will Hextall compete in another free-agent frenzy?
Last season, he went to the table with what he thought was a good amount of money but came home only with Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen.
Will he “go for it” and splash the cash on younger free agents to replace Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang? Will he short sell and hope the top line is good enough to overcome a bargain rack second line?
If Hextall is too cautious, the Penguins will get caught in the middle using mediocre replacements with neither a future nor a present.
If Hextall is too aggressive, the Penguins could get strapped and lose their vitally important depth.
If Hextall brings back the same team, the Penguins will likely suffer the same fate.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ plan is still a puzzle in pieces. It’s time to start putting them together. Trades can take months. Reactions are where mistakes happen, and the Penguins’ puzzle could be missing pieces.