If it’s spring in Pittsburgh, PA and the Penguins haven’t won the Stanley Cup, you can set your watch to one thing.
The Pirates being disappointments.
Okay, so make that two things. The Buccos, and the media talking about the possibility of the Pens trading Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and/or Kris Letang.
Malkin headlines over the years have ranged from the benign to the hypothetical to the flat out ridiculous — “I know what’s coming this summer” anyone? As Adam Gretz found some of the greatest hits.
Feed me. pic.twitter.com/Hwt1tyfdvw— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) April 30, 2019
And then you have the Post-Gazette who has floated the idea in 2017, 2018, and now in 2019 about a Phil Kessel trade. Of course, it’s couched in half-measured phrases like “don’t be surprised if the Pens trade Kessel” or “considering if they get a good offer” or “this could happen” with could being the swing word to hedge an escape if it doesn’t happen.
Checking the roster, Kessel is still on there, but as long as these pseudo-predictions and reporting keep coming, one year they’re bound to come true!
A lot of this bluster and unsettled times falls on the shoulders of the Pens’ general manager. Jim Rutherford could easily have committed to at the very least keeping Malkin (you know, former MVP, scoring champion who, oh yeah, just happens to own a no movement clause that could render him untradeable).
But Rutherford left the door wide-open on anyone not named Sidney Crosby being in the potential wind, which is only just stoking the fires of what “could” happen and what sources are whispering and thinking.
Elliotte Friedman from Sportsnet rounded up most of where the conjecture stands in his latest 31 Thoughts column:
1. Pittsburgh will never rebuild as long as Sidney Crosby is around. But defeat does not sit well in that corner of Pennsylvania and there is need for renovations. You can understand the eye-rolling that comes with Evgeni Malkin trade rumours, but several other clubs believe there is something to this — that, at the very least, the Penguins are determining the feasibility of the idea.
GM Jim Rutherford declined comment, but hinted at it in a couple of local interviews last week. Malkin has a no-move clause, yet the buzz is that he’s taking some time to decompress and think about a.) if he’d agree and b.) where he’d agree to go to. That would be a short list, maybe the Rangers and Florida? The bigger hurdle might be Mario Lemieux, with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reporting sources have told him Lemieux is against the idea. For the Penguins to consider this, the return must be good enough to keep them in contention now.
2. Independent of Malkin, the Penguins are willing to consider a lot of things. Phil Kessel for sure, and they will be asked about Kris Letang. On the latter: Rutherford takes pains to point out how much he likes Letang and has said to people who have asked that the amount of blame the defenceman is taking for the first-round defeat to the Islanders is unfair. The Penguins also have to extend head coach Mike Sullivan.
This puts most of the action in Rutherford’s court, which is where it all is anyway at this point.
As the team gets a couple weeks now from their humiliating first round playoff sweep, they can be a little less emotional and a little more reasoned about the direction moving forward.
They’re truly not that difficult of questions to answer.
Malkin has a full no movement clause. It is wise or unwise to even consider asking him, at the risk of alienation, if he would waive it? And like Friedman notes, surely he will not waive it to probably go to 28 or 29 of the different NHL teams. No bidders equals no return.
If the goal is to make the team the best it can be right now, are you going to make the team better by making a trade that invariably WILL make the team worse?
See, not very difficult at all, just common sense. You can’t move forward by taking a step back.
The same logic basically applies to Kessel too, with his 23-team no trade clause. As written here a dozen times (and, buckle up, probably a dozen times more this summer), Kessel can build a list to be very uncooperative to Pittsburgh, just as Kessel was totally uncooperative with Toronto’s efforts to trade him. That only worked because the Maple Leafs were willing to eat 15% of Kessel’s salary and take on salary dead-weight like Nick Spaling so Pittsburgh could fit him. Are the Pens prepared to do similar for a division rival?
Do the Pens get closer to a Stanley Cup in 2020 by dealing a point-per-game winger in a one-team bidding race where there’s no pressure to bid a lot on him?
Again, not a difficult decision based on the qualifications of the contracts, which the media always seems to miss out on when talking about what “could” happen, then invariably doesn’t.
To be fair and clear, there’s no doubt Rutherford wants to shake up his team badly. He’ll definitely seek to make changes, and there’s no doubt that he’s fanning the flames by even considering just how large the possibility for him to make changes is.
If the team does intend to remain championship contenders, Rutherford needs to remember what he did in summer 2015 when he was in a similar situation, and ironically the last summer where rumors were heavily swirling that the Pens “could” move on from Evgeni Malkin (there’s that word again).
Rutherford didn’t seriously considering trading Malkin though. Instead, he added Kessel in a huge trade. He then added Nick Bonino, not long after he added Carl Hagelin, and promoted players like Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, and Conor Sheary from the minors. He traded Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley.
Improving the supporting cast for Crosby and Malkin is how the Pens became of championship caliber. That cast now is what needs improvements and upgrades. You can’t fix that by trading a star player, you fix that by dropping the 2017 and 2018 offseason mentality that departed from skill and went for toughness and “pushback.”
The problems of 2019 are similar to that of 2015. You have a new-age Scuderi in Jack Johnson. So, go find a new-age Daley of a decent player in a bad situation. You have a need for fresh blood like Bonino or Hagelin. There’s assets to trade, like 2019 and 2020 first round picks by next playoff. Just don’t add an enforcer and second round pick for a promising young player and a first round pick, add a guy who can be the next Hagelin.
The answers for Rutherford are in the past — and we’re not just talking about the yearly summer rumors/reports/and what the media says “could” happen by trading a star. The Pens won’t win by trading Malkin or Kessel, they’ll win if they make moves to get it right around Malkin and Kessel.
Then again, while you should never say never, in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 (and probably more years to come) if you’re in the media you can always say “could”.