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Kingerski: Is This It? Are the Penguins Intentionally Taking a Step Back?

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby

Individually, the decisions are rational and positive. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall has not made a mistake with player acquisition, he didn’t reach for a player in the 2021 NHL Draft, and he has added free agents on appropriate contracts. So far, so good. And the offseason isn’t over.

In a vacuum, each decision is above criticism and justifiable. Even worthy of a pat of praise.

In totality, they’re not nearly enough for the situation, and the Penguins are withering. Hextall is slow-walking the “win now” effort and replacing it with a “win if you can” strategy.

The Penguins are older, softer, and not as good as they were last season.

I must acknowledge, one trade or a combination of moves could change everything. But if a trade or salary dump were possible, it seems it would have happened already. Marcus Pettersson and Jason Zucker make nearly $10 million, they appear destined to be on the Penguins roster next season.

The organization chose to keep the Penguins core with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang together. PHN defended the move on multiple occasions, and we won’t criticize it now, but what is the goal of keeping the core together without much chance to win?

Out went Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, Cody Ceci, and Frederick Gaudreau. Incoming are Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen. The Penguins’ acquisitions scored a total of 15 goals last season. Heinen has talent, but he’s also a soft player. He scored 14 points with Anaheim (7-7-14) despite legitimate opportunity in the middle six.

At $1.1 million, Heinen is a good flier. As a McCann replacement, that’s not good enough.

A salary dump doesn’t seem to be part of the plan. A good time for one would have been to keep McCann before the expansion draft. Or before free agency to find cap space to improve.

Absolutely, the salary cap dictates teams at the top lose players, so teams at the bottom can gain. And the Penguins’ Rutherford era, with reckless giveaways of top picks (without enough positive results), cripple re-tooling efforts.

There’s a certain element of “take your medicine.”

But Heinen, in place of McCann, is a big drop. McGinn for Tanev is a small drop and saved $750,000, but that’s not a lot of money. Tanev’s $3.5 million sounds like a lot more because it starts with three.

The Penguins were in win-now mode when they protected 36-year-old Jeff Carter over 25-year-old McCann at the expansion draft. But the Penguins needed to support the roster. To get better.

Metro Division Gets BETTER

Their rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, are getting better. The New York Rangers are not only getting much better, but they’re also getting tougher. Late on Thursday night, New York traded a third-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights for premier tough guy Ryan Reaves.

Suddenly, the Penguins are softer, older, and not as good. Their rivals are getting energized, physical, and significantly better. The Flyers’ recent additions of Cam Atkinson and Rasmus Ristolainen have analytics people howling, but hockey people are taking notice. They will have an edge and transform a lethargic team into an aggressive team capable of punishing opponents (and scoring, too).

Also, Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart had a disastrous 2020-21 season. Don’t expect that sort of mess again. The Flyers are again a playoff team but now with a backbone that they lacked.

The Rangers’ young stars are a year wiser and a year better (a formula that only works with a young team). The Rangers acquired tough winger Barclay Goodrow and signed him to a six-year deal. They, too, missed the playoffs in 2021 but are now a much better team with a backbone and a coach who knows how to win (Gerard Gallant).

If you doubt me, how about NHL Analyst Kevin Weekes’ tweet after the Rangers picked up Reaves.

 

However, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not better today. The Penguins have regressed in every measurable way. They’re not tougher, actually the opposite. They’ve not fortified any area, actually the opposite.

Somehow, they’re older, too.

The NHL free agent frenzy is almost over, and there remain few players of value who could help the team. Nick Ritchie is perhaps the last UFA who could add some toughness to the Penguins forward group while also adding some scoring punch.

In five or six weeks, players will begin trickling into Pittsburgh for training camp. There’s time, but not much.

There are also in-season trades, but teams desperate or in need don’t often win those deals. After the mad-dash of the NHL free-agent frenzy on Wednesday, there will be few teams that want to take on salary, and we can surmise based on the lack of activity, not the salaries the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to give up.

The Penguins Future

The Penguins do have a pipeline with a few players on the way. At least one, or two of Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, Filip Hallander should be skating on the NHL ice within two years, though none will have a Jake Guentzel-type impact.

P-O Joseph will be ready for the blue line soon.

But there is a couple of year gap from now to when the Penguins can reasonably expect the pipeline to make an impact; unfortunately, those are the last two years that the team can conceivably claim a championship shot with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The “win-now” mode has to bridge the gap from now to then.

Instead, it seems a lot like letting things play out — or wear out–until the full rebuild can start.

If that’s the case, why wait? Why allow the team to atrophy and fade?

Twist Conclusion…

The Penguins are not better today. According to Hextall, the Pittsburgh Penguins will begin contract negotiations with Letang, Malkin, and Bryan Rust in August (or at least begin to look at the situations).

After writing nearly 1000 words and rewriting it all night, I finally realized…

One wonders if contract offers to Malkin and Letang will really be forthcoming. It’s natural to wonder if the atrophy isn’t simply a prelude to wiping the slate clean and building a new team around Sidney Crosby…in 2022-23.

Before the team can give up the idea of winning and embrace a rebuild, it has to realize it cannot win. And only then can a new philosophy take root.

Why keep the core together only to starve it? The Penguins are not better and it doesn’t sound like big improvements are coming. Hextall said on Wednesday, “we’d like to make a few tweaks.”

Maybe the step back will be the only way to take the step forward, sooner than later.

Otherwise, this has been an entirely lackluster offseason which is putting the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff streak in serious jeopardy.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
1 month ago

Excellent Dan-100% agree.

Robert Palaschak
Robert Palaschak
1 month ago

Excellent article Dan. I couldn’t agree more.

As a side note, I wasn’t complaining about the Ristolinen get by Philly as I think he’s a good player. He would have been a good get for the Pens for sure. What I thought was that they gave up too much to get him. Just like I thought (at the time) that the Jason Zucker pick up was a good pick up, but even then I thought they gave up too much for him, let alone now. As my boss always says, “Two things can be true at the same time.”

Frank
Frank
1 month ago

Can’t disagree with much of any of that Dan. At the same time I am not all that concerned about “making” the playoffs. As a fan I see no point in getting into the playoffs for a week or so and then spending the next 2 or 3 months wondering what went wrong. In truth, very little goes wrong. What happens is the team is either marginal or does not belong in the final 16 anyway. So . .. anyone out there really enjoy “making” the playoffs the last three years? Truthfully had they missed it would have been an… Read more »

Kris Francis Peterinelli
Kris Francis Peterinelli
1 month ago

But if you can’t find a partner to take Pettersson (and Zucker since everyone has given up on him) and if you don’t have the cash to spend, how do you get better exactly? Are we the team that won the East/Metro last year or the playoff flame out the last 3. Also why will none of Poulin, Legare and Hallander ever equal Jake? Who the hell heard of Jake before he came up? Doom and Gloom…. Having a bad day?

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

I was going to say something similar. There is a lot of gloom and doom going around. It is disheartening when your opponents are making big trade moves or signings and your team is just plugging holes. Also, plugging the holes with discount bargain bin replacements. I prefer to stay positive and focus on the overall picture. The penguins did the same kind of moves before last season and had a good regular season and were still a fun team to watch. That is all i can ask for at this point. The Penguins are a fading team heading towards… Read more »

David
David
1 month ago

Everyone knew this was coming. The price for 2 Cups — other questionable moves aside. Get ready for quite a few years of mediocrity — it may take two years for that to REALLY begin.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

I guess that none of these moves should surprise us. Hextall was better at tearing down and rebuilding a roster rather than adding to or building a roster. On the other hand, maybe he really tried for trades and nothing was out there. Their two biggest trade pieces/salary dumps could have been Petterson and Zucker. Reality is that they both had down years so who would want them? Also, other GMs aren’t in the business to help out their opponents. Rutherford always found a way to DO SOMETHING or at least try to make something happen and more often than… Read more »

Jason Pope
Jason Pope
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

I think some of it is the personality difference between the 2. Rutherford is known for making big trades that don’t always work out, and as Pens fans we got used to that mentality and the constant roster turnover. Hextall has a more methodical approach as seen by his time in philly. So as fans we see that as not doing enough based on our expectations of a Rutherford type of move. I’m actually a fan of Hextalls moves so far other than letting Guadrou walk and keeping Rodriguez for basically the same money. As for trading Pettersson it’s likely… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95
1 month ago
Reply to  Jason Pope

I’m with you. The Rutherford way is actually the reason that we’re so close to the cap in the first place. He made moves just to make them half of the time, and then unmade them for some reason. Also, I like the idea of giving the younger guys a chance to push for roster spots.

I truly don’t know what else Hextall was expected to do this off season. Personally, I like the approach of not doing anything unnecessary.

kingpuck
kingpuck
1 month ago

BEST ARTICLE EVER. so true and with every day that goes by I have been thinking the same thing. If this is a .500 team in January do they finally make that splash for a rebuild and trade off Malkin, Letang maybe Rust etc? Should be interesting but this is going to be a very hard team to like and watch out of the gate.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
1 month ago

Dan I totally agree with your article. We need cap spaceand if you have to sweeten a deal to trade Petterson and Zucker so be it. People go nuts when you mention trading Malkin or Letang. Guess what neither one is going to give you a discount price so where the hell is the money going to come from. The Flyers and Rangers just got a hell of a lot tougher. We get Sullivans boy Simon. Gud branson is still out there? Perhaps the rebuild has started. They just haven’t told anyone. As far as Burkie thrashing it out with… Read more »

Iwasiam
1 month ago

Hell yes, nailed it. Now send a 100 copies to Hex and Burke

John
John
1 month ago

You provided much-needed clarity with your analysis! Well done Dan!

Doug Ukish
Doug Ukish
1 month ago

Good read.
I cant disagree with anything. I still cant figure the McCann trade or losing Gudreau for what we got back on the roster. We would have been better standing pat. Need a D, cant wait til loses pile, but I’m ok seeing what we put on the ice.
Glad to see Reaves in Wilson’s division.

William Maloni
William Maloni
1 month ago

Spot on and it looks as if you are ready to nail managemnt for their collective mistakes.

No way this current team makes it next season’s playoffs.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  William Maloni

A lot of people thought that last season and they won the division. If people want a rebuild, we should be seeing FIRE SULLY AND TRADE CROSBY! How does that sound? You actually start a rebuild that way. You aren’t going to get anything of value for Malkin or Letang. Fleury was traded for a bag of pucks after winning the Vezina. I am sorry but as long as those two are at the top of the roster and Sid is healthy, this team is making the playoffs. Guess what? Last i checked, that is a GOOD thing!

rhodepop
rhodepop
1 month ago

Thank you Dan. Lots of great comments here as well. The extension for Geno. Yikes. He seems to get injured a lot; he has played over 70 games in one season out of the last 12 (I realize a few of those were shortened seasons). I was hoping they would do what the Stars and a few other teams are doing; assume 71 goes on LTIR, get a few more players, and deal with it between now and the beginning of the season.

EricB
EricB
1 month ago

Right from the fet go. Seeing Dadonov (same type of contract as Zucker) being traded and Hextall not clutchin a trade on draft day At Least…is a non sense. Same goes for B.Dillon trade fir 2 seconds round picks. Lettersson would have at LEAST if not more, get us that in return. And Here js your 10M cap space. PO can easily replace Pettersson as a 5th Dman Hextall never had any intention of pursuing the WIN NOW and help his star players to win another one. Only thing he wants to do, is the only thing he knows how… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95
1 month ago
Reply to  EricB

I can understand some of how you’re feeling. But, after seeing some of these contracts given out, I’m thinking that holding on to Zucker is the right thing. We need that top 6 LW.

However, playing him with Geno just doesn’t work. He and Jake really need switched up on lines once Malkin’s heathy.

Vittorio Di Stazio Jr
Vittorio Di Stazio Jr
1 month ago
Reply to  Jay95

So who’s telling Crosby this? I can guarantee you Sid will say NO. What Sid wants Sid gets. A wise man once said “You have to keep your Superstars happy”.

Eric Manz
Eric Manz
1 month ago

Excellent Article. I literally was saying the same thing on Pensburgh but too many over there think Simon is a great add and that any toughness is not needed. All they want is possession guys.

DaGama
DaGama
1 month ago

“Wiping the slate clean and building a new team around Sidney Crosby.” Just wish the Pens would have started doing that right after the three-peat failed.

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
1 month ago

Yep. And rightly so.

Katz
Katz
1 month ago

Several thought, and an observation. The Red Pill was finally swallowed and I say Thanks better late than never. 1) Seems Rangers answering the Panarin throw down by Wilson by making the necessary moves. Strangely reminiscent of GMJR acquiring Reaves after a 2nd Round win that was like Dunkirk. However Drury will not make the same mistake Rutherford made and acquiesce to a Coach’s analytic wet dreams and trade away Reaves before the playoffs. 2) I’m not going to stir the Malkin pot as some think it ‘bad form’ but he and his 9.5million should have been moved while the… Read more »

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Katz

Injuries are the only way Simon plays in Pittsburgh this season, so i don’t see why some people think it is a big deal

Katz
Katz
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

LOL I’ll remind you Rob

He was their First Free Agent signing Think about that .

Cal
Cal
1 month ago
Reply to  Katz

Love your posts Katz. I agree with many things you say even though it may not be the most popluar opinion.

Tom
Tom
1 month ago
Reply to  Katz

Well said!

Ujn Hunter
1 month ago

Sounds like a bunch of whining about wanting a crumb player like Nick “The Mutt” Ritchie.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
1 month ago
Reply to  Ujn Hunter

Maybe the Pens should move and bring in a Permanent Ice Capades.That is what you analytical jerks want!

dweth2
dweth2
1 month ago

spot on!! If Jarry can get back to form we may by somewhat competitive this season.

Christopher
Christopher
1 month ago

this story has literally been written every year since like 2012. an average goalie this past season may have gotten them to the ECF after winninf the division. its also still july and the roster is by no means complete. so, big eye roll here.

Pen
Pen
1 month ago
Reply to  Christopher

Spot on

Steve
Steve
1 month ago

This is what happens when you give out too many bad contracts.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve

Rutherford did like handing out contracts to unproven players after one good/decent season, like oprah handing out cars

Cal
Cal
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve

Yeah, Petterssons contract made me cringe. So has Marino’s so far but maybe he can up his play. And taking on Mathesons long deal….thats over 13 mil for the minimum next four years….for roughly the same amount of $ these 3 Dman digned as free agants this year…Hamilton, Ceci , and Hakaanpaa….

Pen
Pen
1 month ago

A nervous goalie and an injured goalie is why the season ended. If not for that they could have made a real run and then you would all be praising the same team that you’re saying was no good. I have no problem with McCann leaving. He’s a bust in the playoffs so what’s the point? The team is good enough to get there without him and they need the cap space. Carter does McCann’s job and then some anyways. They’ve added good depth so far this off-season and once they move one of the big contracts they’ll be in… Read more »

Sam
Sam
1 month ago

Great article! Hextall….polishing the knobs on the Titanic. His inaction is dumbfounding. Crosby…we are one shoulder to the chin away from losing our captain and havinga disastrous season. Looking forward to watching Malkin handling his own scrums with other teams’ sandpaper D-men. Burkie must be seething. Where is the “truculence”? Wonder if there is any behind the scenes tension with Hextall. They should bring in Gudbranson and Ritchie and deal with the cap issue between now and when Malkin returns from LTIR. I’d trade Guentzel which frees up $6M to make an impact. Even if they make the playoffs, it… Read more »

Vittorio Di Stazio Jr
Vittorio Di Stazio Jr
1 month ago
Reply to  Sam

Then where is Winger for Sid if you move the Snake? None of the prospects could handle being on Sid’s line as he wants Wingers who can keep up with him and your idea is to trade your best winger and bring in 2 guys who do nothing. Glad your not the Gm of the Pens as you would run the team into the ground.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

People who would rather have a full rebuild now should go back and watch some penguins games from 2001-2003. May change some opinions.

German Pens Fan
German Pens Fan
1 month ago

Yikes, so much for getting bigger and more physical… Yes, McGinn plays with grit but he’s Tanev with lesser salary. Heinen comes cheap but can’t replace Mc Cann and he’s soft and can’t play center. Hextal should try to trade Petterson, POJ is way cheaper and gives you the same, a lanky Dman but with more upside. Try to get Ritchie and Gudbranson.

Cal
Cal
1 month ago

I agree about Ritchie and Guds but there is no way McGinn is close to the player Tanev is. There are very few players that have what Tanev brings.

Katz
Katz
1 month ago
Reply to  Cal

Unforced error to expose Tanev. Should have exposed Carter

Ken Colligan
1 month ago

Building a team around Crosby may not be so easy. After this year his actual salary drops to 3 mill per for the final three years of his contract. He is making nine mill this year. Do you really believe someone as competitive as Crosby will be willing to play for a team that has no realistic chance at the cup for far less money ? Just fade away for the remaining years of his contract ? He owes this city nothing. Sydney will force a trade.

Michael
Michael
1 month ago

Everything the Rangers did is what I was expecting thePens to do.I see no reason for Brian Burke to be in the organization. A waste.

Nicholas White
Nicholas White
1 month ago

Hextall has disappointed me thus far. He said he was going for big and tough this offseason, but so far all hes done is make the team smaller and softer than ever, while every other team in the division beefs up. The Penguins are going to get bullied all season then go out in the 1st round again. Also I cannot believe Simon is back, he is awful. He is so bad that he couldnt even crack the lineup on a really bad Flames team last season. I was ecstatic when the Pens got him off their hands, but nope,… Read more »

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
1 month ago
Reply to  Nicholas White

IT ALL SMELLS LIKE SULLIVAN!

Jasonc
1 month ago

That’s exciting awesome work! That’s a lot more exciting than what Hextall has done during free agency. Sadly this Pens team has gotten worse not better from last years team. Goalie position is a huge question mark So much for truculence get 2 retreads that are barely 5’11, Miginn is ok pick up again they got older slower less skilled and did not add any form of physicality to the lineup or heavy guys. Just a bunch of hot air from Burke This could be the end of a era this team is way worse now than last year and… Read more »

Uros
Uros
1 month ago

I’m waiting for a resolution on the goalie question. I won’t judge before that. So far the Pens are not better, but they are not worse either. And let me remind you that last season everybody was crying and whining that we won’t make the playoffs. How did that go? Oh, yes, that brings me to my first sentence so I’ve come full circle.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
1 month ago
Reply to  Uros

Four straight years ousted in first round. Do you consider that good?

Uros
Uros
1 month ago

I consider last year good and thought we could’ve gone further with good goaltending. I don’t look at it simply as a first round exit, but how we played. The others were appalling because everybody played like the goalie this year. This again brings me to my first sentence.

Brandon O
Brandon O
1 month ago

It’s a tough call to make until we see if there any more moves in the works. If they have a big trade to address either goaltending or the holes on 3rd and 3rw, this off-season could still be salvaged. I would have liked Saad here for 4.5, but it’s possible some of these players don’t want to play here unless we overpay in FA. Our options to clear enough space were: 1. sell low on Zucker, probably giving up a pick to move that contract and miss the chance that he has a bounce back year. 2. Sell pettersson,… Read more »

Bachinga
Bachinga
1 month ago

When the Pens first hired Hextall, a lot of trolls from the Flyers Nation were taunting us about his penchant for signing fourth liners…who knew they’d be right?

The signings were beyond puzzling…the Heinen signing especially..McGinn I kind of get but it makes me wonder if Hextall really thought he was going to be more active trade wise prior to and during the draft and when that didn’t happen he capitulated to the reality that he ain’t gonna get nuttin’ n’at for Zucker and/or Pettersson…

Tom
Tom
1 month ago

Where is that grit and toughness we were promised? We are about to receive a full season of muggings!

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