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Early Offseason Penguins Trade Bait List; Rakell or Smith?

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Pittsburgh Penguins trade bait, Rickard Rakell, Reilly Smith, P.O Joseph

Conventional wisdom says it is far too early to discuss the NHL trade market and what comes next for the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose summer is only two weeks old after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive year. One of the reasons the Penguins failed was the lack of middle-six scoring despite the pedigrees of Reilly Smith and Rickard Rakell.

And so Rakell headlines the hopes of many for a big-time offseason trade, but should he?

While the NHL generally frowns upon news that upstages the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially closer to the Stanley Cup Final, getting better or putting a team in a position to get better is the top priority.

Former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford lept from the starting line before hearing the pistol when he shoveled the team’s first-round pick (15th overall) to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Kasperi Kapanen on Aug. 25, 2020.

(Due to that insidious little bug known as COVID, August was the start of the 2020 offseason and during the Stanley Cup Playoffs bubble, which took place in Toronto and Edmonton).

But a new Penguins GM wouldn’t make such an early trade? The GM on the other end of the phone was current Penguins president of hockey operation/GM Kyle Dubas.

Side note: score one for Dubas on that trade.

Returning the same team could only produce the same results. However, before putting Rakell on top of the trade board, should a GM actively shop a winger who can play both sides and has scored 28 goals and 60 points?

No, Rakell didn’t come close to those totals this season, but those are his previous season stats–when he was healthy. Rakell copped to injury after the season when he declined a World Championship invitation from Team Sweden. If you were a frequent viewer of Penguins pre and postgame or National Hockey Now YouTube channel, you saw he wore a shoulder brace for most of the season.

So, how much of Rakell’s struggles were injuries, and how much was on him?

Of course, he had a terrible start to the season. It was absolutely awful and the worst of his 10-year career. He had nine points (2-7-9) in 23 games before suffering the upper-body injury. He also finished slow, with 12 points (7-5-12) in the last 25 games.

The Penguins trade debate isn’t clear-cut, and the ultimate answer relies on 31 other GMs. Would one pay full price, or will the crowd stick to a reduced price, demanding a discount on the dented can?

My two cents are that trading Rakell would only create a need for a higher-priced option. Until the Penguins cultivate an in-house replacement (Valtteri Puustinen has a long way to go), trading Rakell would only heighten the pressure on Reilly Smith to score at full throttle.

Further, one winger can play with Evgeni Malkin, and one seemed limited by the experience.

So, which seems more likely: Smith or Rakell scoring 25 goals next season? The correct answer is Rakell.

The Penguins don’t have many tradeable assets, so any deals will either hurt or bring necessary assets. And to head many of you off at the pass, no part of Dubas’s inflection or words indicated Tristan Jarry is available or will not be the Penguins’ goalie next season.

But never say never.

Penguins Trade Bait List 1.0

1. Reilly Smith

There’s no reason to knock Smith, and as we’ve reported, the unhappy in Pittsburgh stuff came with a strong objection from the player himself.

However, he scored 13 goals with 40 points. He wasn’t “relegated” to third-line duty, but his best spot was certainly beside the predictable Lars Eller and not beside the unpredictable Malkin. A $5 million third-liner is a luxury for a good team, not one for a team desperate for changes to return to the playoffs in the waning years of Sidney Crosby’s career.

2. Marcus Pettersson

Pettersson is the Penguins’ most reliable defenseman. Full stop. However, like Smith, he has one year remaining on his contract, and there is a pesky problem. Pettersson is much better in the first half or three-quarters of the season than he is down the stretch.

The lanky defenseman weighs 177 pounds, and it’s an honest question if the workload of covering for Erik Karlsson, killing penalties, and fighting net-front battles wears him down prematurely.

He deserves a raise over his $4.083 million salary, but can the Penguins get similar defensive work and a greater net-front presence for similar money? Pettersson should have real value if Dubas sees an opening.

3. P.O Joseph

This is more for the player than the team. He found his groove later in the season when paired with Kris Letang. However, he also seemed to find a bit of success beside Erik Karlsson, but the coaches didn’t stick with it.

A soon-to-be 25-year-old defenseman coming into his own who is an RFA–meaning an acquiring team will retain his rights and sign him to a new contract of their choosing (with an arbitrator’s help)–could prove to be a tempting option for a GM with a young and improving team or a veteran team with a spot to fill on the cheap.

The return wouldn’t be enormous, but it might snag a needed veteran at another spot.

4. Sam Poulin

The Penguins wouldn’t get much, but it’s an honest question if the player needs a fresh start or a different system. He just doesn’t seem to excel with the Penguins.

5. Tristan Jarry

One can’t help but look at the mess in goal for a few teams with Stanley Cup aspirations and wonder what a better netminder could do. We’re looking at you, LA, Edmonton, Toronto, New Jersey, and we’re tossing some side-eye to Carolina.

Yes, Jarry is a good goalie. No, he’s not the hack and bum that many Penguins fans insist. Until the March swoon, the Penguins’ goalies were statistically among the tops in the league. Every criticism leveled by fans, shines a light on how much worse off many other teams are; looking at the bigger picture gives an entirely different perspective on the Penguins goaltending situation.

Yes, Joel Blomqvist will soon be ready, and yes, Alex Nedeljkovic would like to stay. And yes, several affordable 1A or second-string goalies will be available.

However, trading Jarry would entangle the salary cap of most teams in need. The Penguins might get stuck eating a bad contract, thus lightening their July 1 cash box.

And, despite being the golden boy–backups often are in this town–Nedeljkovic is reviving his career and is far from a proven commodity. His play and his stats down the stretch weren’t special (his save percentage on the great charge was well below .900).

A rebuilding team could happily go with a Nedeljkovic/Blomqvist pairing. A team with greater hopes would otherwise hold its breath and be a frequent visitor to early morning mass.

If it went wrong, it would go spectacularly wrong. Sometimes, a less-than-ideal situation is better than saving a few bucks on the gamble. Or, if a team offers up the right deal, maybe it works.