The NHL trade deadline - the most wonderful time of the year. Unless you’re a fan of a marginal playoff team.
‘WE NEED TO MAKE A SPLASH AND GO ALL IN FOR THE CUP!’
‘WE NEED TO BRING IN CODY MCLEOD TO TRULY BE A CONTENDER!’
If your team is on the bubble - as the Penguins are this year - you are probably hearing stuff like that.
At present, the Penguins sit third in the Metropolitan with 71 points on the season. Two points behind Washington for second, two points up on Columbus for the second wildcard, and three points clear of Carolina in the nine spot, while the first place Islanders have accumulated 76 points in just 58 games played.
Due largely to how tight the standings have become (thanks Carolina) it seems that the consensus among fans would be for Jim Rutherford to bring in some reinforcements and ensure the Penguins make it to the playoffs for the 13th straight season. Is that necessary here? Should we really be selling what is left of the farm? There’s a few factors that come in to play here, but overall, I think the team should largely sit back over the tumultuous week ahead.
How do they actually stack up in the division?
There’s a lot more to the competence of each contending Metro squad than their respective records. Looking at a few stats beyond points, it’s clear that Pittsburgh stacks up pretty well against the rest of the division.
The team currently has a +23 goal differential, second in the division to Islanders, who while allowing a minuscule 138 goals against, are not producing goals at the rate of the Penguins, who’s 210 goals against is second only to Tampa in the conference. Now the Penguins aren’t all of a sudden going to become the 85’ Bears, (I’ve always wanted to use that analogy) but with goaltending generally trending up, we can expect this differential to stay steady. For some context Columbus, a team who may trade their starting goalie and star forward, sport a more moderate +8 differential with only 7 less goals allowed than the high flying Penguins.
Analytically speaking, the Penguins have been a top contender all year. Through all their difficulties, they have consistently maintained their status as a likely playoff team. The worst-case scenario would be to overreact to a close race and make some stupid, soon to be regrettable trades, just so they can say they did something.
On top of all of this, Pittsburgh will be playing the second easiest schedule of all eastern conference teams down the stretch.
The Penguins aren’t exactly on an acquisition hot streak.
I’m going to try and get through this section without dogging on Jimmy Rutherford too hard. I like Jim. We all like Jim. That beautiful human being delivered us two championship trophies and certainly has made some strong additions to the Penguins over the years. His trade record swings way more positive than negative, and I absolutely think it’s possible he comes out of nowhere with a move I didn’t anticipate that pays off big time.
That being said, let’s look at some recent history. After winning it all in 2017 the Penguins sent out a first round pick, for Ryan “8 points in 58 games as a Penguin” Reaves and a second round pick. That 2017 pick could be a player pushing for a roster spot not unlike Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did in 2016.
We don’t have the body of work necessary to make conclusive judgments on the Hagelin/Sprong/Brassard deals, but I do think it’s fair to say that they ring true of trades made by a team who believes they had to do something.
There’s no reason a recent back-to-back champion needs to be initiating this sort of pressure on themselves. Last year the Capitals self-admittedly bowed out of the deadline, opting instead to tinker around the edges of their lineup, it seemed to work out pretty well for them.
Do I even need to bring up the Jack Johnson signing?
I do not like it.
What ammunition is there for a move?
There seems to be some traction for the idea of going out a landing one of the big names on the block, who doesn’t love a team that stands for winning at all costs? It’s important not to confuse “going for it” with making reckless trades, and any trade of this nature would be reckless given the status of the farm.
Pittsburgh hasn’t drafted in the first round since 2014 (when they picked Kasperi Kapanen - who was promptly traded for Phil Kessel). At beginning of this season the Penguins farm system was ranked 9th worst in the NHL, before they traded Daniel Sprong. Just last year the Penguins traded a first round pick for Derick Brassard, who is no longer with the organization.
I’m not in favour of any trade which doesn’t move the needle in a clear forward direction. Bringing in a Wayne Simmonds to help battle it out in the playoffs is not as important as maintaining some draft capital to start adding value contracts to the edges of the roster in what will assuredly be the last few peak years of the Crosby/Malkin era.
Panic trades and a lack of draft capital are a quick way to bottom out in this league.
‘Ok but humour me, if they did make a trade who should they be looking at?’
I’m glad you asked. Obviously, there is room to improve on this roster, and for the right price, (late round picks, fringe prospects, and non-essential roster players) said moves would be more than welcome. However, with only four picks in this summer’s draft and just over $2m in deadline cap space, a lot of the hot names should be off the table unless it’s dollar in for dollar out.
I think the club would be best off targeting a cheap mobile defensive option like Nick Jensen to help get the puck out of their end. There really isn’t a need to add more firepower to the offence, if this was being considered someone like Ryan Dzingel offers good value, though I very seriously doubt he would cost less than a roster player, half decent prospect, or high pick.
All of this is to say, the Penguins are a good team. Short of another extreme cold spell they have every chance of escaping the wildcard spots altogether. It has seemed at times like the wheels were going to fall off this year, and yet here they are, more likely than not to make the playoffs for a 13th straight season. So let’s take a step back, think about all the moves that have been made in the last 20 months to keep this team a contender, and ask if any of them really moved the needle?
Breathe, it’s all going to be ok. Besides, at the end of the day very few teams who win on deadline day win in June.