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With Victor Rask in Carolina’s doghouse, could he be of Penguins interest?

A talented young center drafted by current Pens GM Jim Rutherford is a healthy scratch and not playing well in Carolina. A look at why this should be on the radar in Pittsburgh.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Interesting tweet from a Carolina Hurricanes reports, forward Victor Rask was a healthy scratch last night for the second game in a row.

Now this isn’t to say that any and every player scratched is automatically on the trading block, but it’s certainly eyebrow raising (and you know, worth checking in on if you have a job in an NHL front office) to see what the situation is here.

HERO Chart

Scouting Report from The Hockey News

Assets: Has NHL size and strength (6-2, 200 pounds), plus solid playmaking acumen. Works hard at improving his game and displays upside as a two-way forward at the highest level.

Flaws: Isn't the greatest skater, so he must continue to work on that element of his game in order to thrive in the National Hockey League. Isn't very physical, despite good size.

Career Potential: Solid playmaker with some upside.

Age: 24 (3/1/1993)

Contract Status: $4.0 million salary, signed through 2021-22 season

Career progression (From Hockeydb)

While it’s oft been speculated that Jordan Staal might still be the apple of the Penguins’ eye, Victor Rask’s status is interesting. Obviously he’s not having a great season this year and is getting some tough love, and it’s probably nothing more than that.

However, the Hurricanes are succeeding while he’s scratched and he’s due a sizeable salary and contract promised over the years to come. Might they be souring in upper management/ownership on a player like that signed for the next 4+ years? Only way to find out is to ask.

Current Pens GM Jim Rutherford of course will be very familiar with Rask, since Rutherford drafted him 41st overall in the second round in 2011. Rutherford also signed Rask to his entry level contract in 2013 and the two were in the same organization in 2013-14, though a then 20-year old Rask spent the entire season in the AHL.

Rask may not be a perfect fit, he’s a playmaking center whose career high in short-handed time per game is 0:22 last season. Ideally the Pens probably would like a more well-rounded center who can eat PK minutes. But for the prospect of creating 3 balanced scoring lines again, one would think the potential acquisition of a player like Rask would be very intriguing given his size, contract stability and boxcar numbers more impressive than a Nick Bonino type over similar ages.

Luke DeCock of the News and Observer keys us into what is going on down in Raleigh:.

What's more disturbing than Rask's lack of production is his apparent lack of interest. His first two seasons in the league, he displayed a wicked shot and incisive vision on the rush. He wasn’t the passive perimeter player he was at times last year, and all of this year.

“Does he need to be better? Yes. Does he know that? Yes. Can he be better? For sure,” Peters said. “He knows that. We believe in him and we’ll help him get better and we’ll support him and we’ll get him with the right people to make him effective.”

The Hurricanes aren't built to win with Rask as a passenger. He has to be driving a scoring line, producing, for them to be successful. And his failure to do that has been a major factor in the team's inability to take a leap forward this year. He lost his alternate captaincy amid the still-bizarre decision to go with co-captains in October and has been a complete nonfactor since, although the two hardly seem related.

On the strength of Rask's 48-point sophomore season, Hurricanes general Ron Francis signed him to a six-year, $24 million contract, believing he was getting a bargain because Rask would continue to improve. In Francis' thinking, $4 million per season would be a bargain for a player locked in as the Hurricanes' No. 2 center, and maybe even a future No. 1.

Instead, Rask regressed to a disappointing 16 goals and 45 points last season. The Hurricanes look at that kind of production from Rask wistfully now.

Our SBN blog, Canes Country had a fairly scathing commentary on Rask’s poor season start yesterday that echos a lot of the above.

This team signed Rask to replicate, and preferably build on, his first two seasons in the NHL. A contract that once looked like a steal has quickly turned into a hindrance. The Swedish center is producing at a 25-point pace over an 82-game slate over his last 58 games and was finally removed from the lineup on Sunday.

Bill Peters’ comments on him were very telling, saying that the team needed a win, thus requiring the coaching staff to ice the best lineup they could. That lineup did not include Rask but instead featured Phil di Giuseppe in the team’s top-nine.

At their best, Rask is undoubtedly better than di Giuseppe, but Rask has been far from his best since the start of the 2017 calendar year.

At this point, I’m not sure what the coaching staff can do to get the most out of the player. This isn’t an X’s and O’s thing, it’s mental. Will sitting him out a game turn things around? I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps the move could get the ball rolling in the right direction.

For the team’s sake, let’s hope Rask takes the steps necessary in order to return to a respectable level of play because he’s not only failing to play up to his $4 million cap hit, he’s barely playing like an NHL regular.

That does sound like a frustrating player for a small market organization that has a lot of money committed to him, without a lot of pay-off right now. Is it a bit concerning to see motivation questions after signing a guaranteed contract? Perhaps, but if Rask wasn’t at a low point, there’s no chance a trade would be entertained in the first place so Pittsburgh is going to have to try and “buy low” on some talented player if the opportunity is there, and that means it comes with some warts.

What would it take to make work? Pretty tough to say, we’re just spitballing here. Capfriendly reports the Penguins would have $5.5 million in salary space at the trade deadline with the way free cap space compounds late in the season, though they only list $1.1 million available right now. Point being, the money aspect should easily be workable if the teams want to figure out a way to make it work.

As far as what Carolina would want, that would be an open question as well. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a ton to give, though one would think the 2018 first round pick and a close to ready prospect like Daniel Sprong would be at the top of any negotiation to bring an NHL caliber addition to the lineup this year.

A lot of that is theoretical and debatable- with a lot of unknown information- the more important aspect is trying to ascertain what they may be thinking and feeling in Carolina about Rask’s long-term future with that club.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Carolina has any interest at all in trading Rask just because he’s in the dog house this week for playing time. But then again, 24-year old players with 260 career NHL games aren’t often scratched multiple times in a row when a team sees them as key cogs in the future, either. Victor Rask probably ought to be on the Pens radar for a big trade addition, if at all possible. Should the Pens be able to add Rask to Riley Sheahan down the middle as lower line centers, they will have finally given proper replacements to the departed Bonino and Matt Cullen.