TORONTO — The Pittsburgh Penguins have filled the headlines with baffling play and puzzling results. They have dominated a few games and lost, failed to score on the power play for more than a month, and yet their starting goalie leads in the NHL with three shutouts.
If you can figure out the mysterious Penguins juju and how to get a Hall of Famer-laden team on a consistent track, coach Mike Sullivan has operators standing by.
The team largely stunk on Wednesday night in Montreal, but Sidney Crosby brought his cape and saved the day for a 4-3 SO win. He changed in the locker room because phone booths no longer exist.
The Penguins’ struggles were best exemplified by the records Wednesday. The rebuilding Montreal Canadiens and Penguins had the same number of wins and points.
There is little doubt the Penguins must improve, or Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas could wear a black hood and bring a scythe to the meetings about future direction.
“I have my expectations of the group now, and I have my responsibility in the long run when it comes to how we’re going to dictate our course. I’m going to give the players and the coaching staff as much time as possible,” Dubas said. “So I’m just by nature not going to make any decisions based on how we do this week or next week. When we get through the All-Star break, and on the other side of that, we’ll have a better idea of what we are as a group and where we need to go. Do we need some help, or do we need to have … a deeper discussion about where we’re at as a club?”
In the room that day, I did not take Dubas’s comments as a threat of a potential teardown. I took them as optimistic and a GM willing to make trades to help the team. But if it does fall flat, recouping assets and moving players to add youth and a fresh start could be in order.
National columns, including Pierre LeBrun with The Athletic, surely suggested the Penguins could clean house and start rebuilding if things do not improve. That’s fair, but does anyone in Pittsburgh see the core waving the white flag?
Their no-movement clauses mean they get a say in the matter, too.
The Penguins’ prospect pool is so barren that it would take at least three years just to begin the upswing of the rebuild. The top prospect is goalie Joel Blomqvist. We’re seeing Valtteri Puustinen now. Brayden Yager is doing well in Moose Jaw, and Owen Pickering has yet to get much NHL seasoning because since being drafted in the first round, he’s missed both preseasons with injury.
Asking that small group of second-tier prospects to lead a rebuild might be like putting out a house fire with a garden hose, though Blomqvist could eventually make Tristan Jarry available or himself be a prized trade chip.
From this view of the church, it seems the Penguins could indeed trade Erik Karlsson. He’s here to win, and if that’s not going to happen, both sides could find a quick and amicable parting. Dubas could surely recoup the first and second-round picks the Penguins gave up in the deal, if not more, and even come out ahead. However, next summer is the more likely timeframe for that trade because of Karlsson’s salary.
But if the Penguins are still a handful of points behind and mired in the mudpuddle of Eastern Conference teams chasing the wild card spots but late January, we won’t make the same mistake we made last summer by underestimating Dubas’s ability to find a deal.
Even Jake Guentzel could be a goner by this year’s NHL trade deadline. We’ve opined that his future does not match the Penguins team arc, making a new contract difficult. Guentzel would surely fetch a first-rounder and then some, helping Dubas replenish the dry Penguins prospect pool.
Rickard Rakell, too? Yes. Some combination of Reilly Smith, Lars Eller, Noel Acciari, or even Ryan Graves? Yep. It’s all possible if the future is not right now.
But the big three? Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Sidney Crosby?
As Malkin bellowed at the start of training camp–“Three more years!”
Surely, each had to know losing was a possibility when Letang and Malkin signed extended contracts in May and June 2022, respectively.
Nor are the Penguins core-three the problem facing the team. It’s fair to assess the Penguins as getting the absolute most out of the core while struggling to get enough from the rest.
Does anyone see Letang giving up on the Penguins and asking for a trade? He’s got three Stanley Cup rings and took a much lower average annual value to stay with the Penguins (and he’ll have four more years on the deal after this season, which only makes it tougher to trade him if he did).
Letang has spoken with genuine emotion about what it meant to stay and what it means to eventually finish his career with one organization.
Malkin might be the domino to fall. He was ready to go in June 2022, but not because he wanted to leave, but reportedly because he felt the Penguins didn’t want him. If the same happens again, yes, Malkin would be the one.
But Sidney Crosby in another sweater?
Colorado fans can salivate over the prospect of Team Nova Scotia bringing another Stanley Cup. Or maybe the Montreal Canadiens could bring Sid to his childhood hockey palace to be the final piece of their turnaround. Those would make for incredible storylines, but they are unlikely to interest Crosby.
In a salary cap world, teams can turn around quickly, especially if they have defense, goaltending, and a No. 1 center. Even if the house of cards that the previous GM left for Dubas tumbles, the Penguins will still have the core and a chance to turn around quickly.
And that’s probably enough to keep everyone coming back.
We just don’t see it. Our guess is that at least two of the three, if not all three, would try to help the rebuild rather than accept a trade.