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.
— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) July 30, 2021
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?
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.