Happy New Year, everybody. In the first 2018 edition of our mailbag feature, we, of course, stuck to some of the same hot topics cycling around the Pittsburgh Penguins bubble. Let’s get to it.
Best movable assets for the short and long term in asset management perspective? Hörnqvist, Cole, Hagelin to begin with.— Toni Nikunen (@ToniNikunen) December 19, 2017
Trades, trades, trades.
To preface my answer, the moves GM Rutherford made in the offseason and as recently as a couple weeks ago have been questionable, uninspiring and, honestly, rather unexciting. I understand that he’s definitely had to make some calls before the freeze that were a by-product of Pittsburgh’s current salary cap crunch, but with the additions of guys like Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick, and, Antti Niemi back in the summer when the 2017 Cup team was getting picked apart, Rutherford definitely didn’t help with the bottom-six woes in his decision to bring those guys on board.
Now, with the Penguins one point out of a wildcard spot, Rutherford needs to absolutely spin a big trade that will bring some life to Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines. What should he move around? Should he pair together several decent guys and more draft picks? What should he do about goaltending? Here’s what I think:
A lot of people seem to want Ian Cole gone. That, or they think that trading him will get this team a decent return. To buffer their argument, he hasn’t played his best in the last handful of games and seems to keep committing bad penalties. He and Mike Sullivan also don’t appear to get along all that well. I don’t disagree with claims like these; GMJR could probably utilize his style of play as a defenseman in a trade tandem. However, I think guys like Cole are imperative to Cup runs, and the defensive corps, whenever it’s healthy, is a solid group. Plus, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz are back in the lineup. I don’t think breaking up the defense is the way to go.
That being said, Rutherford needs to shop around for role guys. Pittsburgh’s top-six forwards are a lethal bunch, and with the addition of Daniel Sprong’s rocket for a shot, I think offensive production will finally break out of its unlucky slump. The Penguins need speed. They need energy. They need a spark in their bottom-six. One or two forwards who can bring those things to the table will boost this team back into playoff contention. The market currently contains role players like this.
I’m a firm believer that finding players that possess those skill sets don’t require selling off all the high-level talent in one fell swoop. Rutherford’s a smart dude; he can maneuver his way into a solid deal and has in the past. I could see Carl Hagelin tied into a deal. Conor Sheary, even though I adore his style of play, is another name that stands out to me. I wouldn’t hate saying goodbye to Hunwick either, especially with Jamie Oleksiak now on board. He’s the only defenseman I’d definitely get rid of. Don’t shake up the top-six or goaltending, and see what trade combinations can be made of everything else.
Letang doesn't seem like his old self yet, still struggling from the injury maybe?— Alex Wentz (@PensRedskins206) December 20, 2017
Letang is a warrior. He’s coming off season-ending neck surgery. He suffered a stroke before he turned 30. He’s a professional hockey player competing with a congenital heart defect. He’s also a franchise guy and, when on his game, not only the best defenseman on the team, but also easily a top-10 defender in the league, if not higher.
Letang deserves some slack. Yes, he’s had an off year. Yes, he’s not playing fantastic, and, at times, has made poor decisions on the ice. But think of the circumstances of everything he’s been through in the past decade or so. 58 has basically had to revamp his entire game to circumvent his injuries. He’s had to completely recode his competitive mentality. He works with coach Sergei Gonchar extensively day-in-and-day-out to change his game for the betterment of his body. He’ll be fine. Learning that Pittsburgh has zero intention of trading him is excellent and as it should be.
The close games are bothersome. The Pens can’t seem to dominate consistently and aren’t getting any bounces. I can’t recall a time where I’ve seen so many shots and nothing buried in the net game after game.— Richard Eve (@VolFFrickeve) December 22, 2017
Everything Richard said is true. At times, this team has been hard to watch for all of these reasons. The Penguins aren’t the fastest team in the NHL with impenetrable depth anymore, and because of that, they’ve struggled to dominate games and opponents. They’re getting beat badly by teams that in no way should be beating them (read: Detroit and Carolina).
In my opinion, the worst aspect of Pittsburgh’s nightly struggles is its inability to start games with the energy and power it did last season and the year before. Sullivan, Crosby, Murray, etc. have all frustratingly mentioned this is in just about every post-game media conference in which they lost. It’s causing the team to constantly play from behind. Bad puck luck and PDO (things out of their control) aside, Pittsburgh has to step onto the ice in the first minute of the first period charging and ready to fly around. The Penguins are doing a good job in creating scoring chances, but there’s no initial energy anymore. It takes two or three goals scored against before the Pens get any sort of fire ignited under them, and that’s bad. As mentioned earlier, trades to assist in these aspects will do wonders.
It also doesn’t help that, before the game against Philadelphia, even strength scoring was a lost cause and a pipe dream. As infuriating as it is to watch, I can’t imagine how it’s making the players feel.
On the upside, the Pens, most notably their fourth line, played incredibly well against the Flyers Tuesday night. Hell, even Reaves had a goal. This season’s rivalry games are boding well for this team. What I’m desperate to see is if Pittsburgh can play this way against non-rivals. Let’s see if the offense builds off that positive performance and keeps racking up points in divisional play.
As always, keep a look out on @Pensburgh for our next mailbag tweet.