There is a tendency to think everything must be accomplished in the offseason, every need must be addressed, and every lineup spot fortified. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a couple of holes in the lineup, including pending free agent Cody Ceci, another will be created when the Seattle Kraken takes a player, and the team would like to add size.
But what must be filled now, and what can wait?
Penguins GM Ron Hextall doesn’t have to fill every need on July 28 or shortly thereafter. The truth is he can wait until the 2022 NHL trade deadline for some things. The pending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning knew they needed more grit in their lineup but waited until the 2020 deadline to add Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
Of course, waiting can be a detriment, too. Look no further than the Penguins search for a third-line center following the departure of Nick Bonino in July 2017. Multiple trade deadlines and offseasons came and went before the Penguins finally plugged the serviceable Teddy Blueger into the role and then the reborn Jeff Carter at the 2021 deadline.
Next season, the Penguins will return to the crowded Metro Division, which will have the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, and New York Islanders at the top. The emerging New York Rangers and whatever the Philadephia Flyers will be behind them. Add the Columbus Blue Jackets, and there could be six or even seven playoff-worthy teams, including the Penguins.
Prioritizing the Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason
1. Right-Side Defenseman
The absolute must fill is a RHD. The Penguins cannot enter another season as they did in 2019-20 with a crowded left side but not enough righties. That was nearly a debacle with Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson sharing time until John Marino stabilized the situation.
One of the Penguins’ strengths this season was the use of activated defensemen. They were a top-five blue line in points and scoring chances.
The blue line was an asset.
Flipping Marcus Pettersson to the right side to make room for LHD P.O. Joseph isn’t a solution, nor is putting speedster Mike Matheson on his off-hand. Players downplay the move, and when coaches must do it, they too downplay it, but there’s a reason when coaches quickly balance the defenseman RHD-LHD when given a chance.
RHD: Must Fill Now. Ceci or UFA.
The regular season will be back to hockey by the rulebook unless the NHL discards it next season as they did for the 2021 NHL playoffs. So, the Pittsburgh Penguins, as currently constituted, are an outstanding regular-season team. Head coach Mike Sullivan is an expert at motivating the troops and setting the mindset to overcome obstacles.
See the 2021 East Division title.
The Penguins’ salary cap situation means they must say goodbye to players before they can add. The free-agent market isn’t a great fit for them anyway, so trades are more likely to solve the Penguins need some angry shoulders.
The adage is an offseason trade is easier, but former Penguins GMs Craig Patrick and Jim Rutherford were adept at seeing a struggling team that needed something the Penguins had and making the swap. Harkening back to the pre-salary cap days, Patrick was especially skilled at finding physical players on teams that needed more offense and making that philosophical swap (Hello, Ulf Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet).
It may be easier, in this case, to wait out a team that begins to fear for its playoff life.
2021-22 will be a HUGE year for many organizations. They have LOST tens of millions of dollars, and making the playoffs is the only way to get the cash pump flowing. There will be teams that absolutely must make the playoffs in 2021-22, or owners will be trouble.
That’s when GMs make short-term moves, and that’s where the Penguins can pounce.
Physicality: Nice to have now, can wait until the 2022 Deadline.
3. Experienced Goaltending
You might spit out your morning coffee if I shared the whisper passed to us before the weekend. It’s second hand, so it’s not yet reportable, but there are people on the inside talking about big things–and that’s the takeaway from that sentence, nothing more.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t need goaltending to make the playoffs. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are wonderfully competent in their roles, buying the Penguins time and space. Jarry is a solid starting goalie. He may become elite, he may remain in that solid middle tier, but his playoff performance was worrisome.
In the 2020 offseason, goalies were hanging around downtown by themselves, and they had too much time to think about themselves, and then there she was–a contract at the last second (free subscription to the first person to name the song lyric in the comments).
The goalie market could be similarly crowded and stagnant again this offseason.
Ordinarily, this would be a wait-and-shop for the best option, but the market won’t be flooded during the season. For whatever reasons, goalie trades in-season seem harder to pull off than robbing a Vegas casino with 10 of your closest friends.
Experienced goalie: Now, now, now!