Oskar Sundqvist has been one of the most impressive players for the St. Louis Blues in their Western Conference Final series against the San Jose Sharks, and he scored another goal on Sunday afternoon to open the scoring and set the tone in their 5-0 win. It seems like every time he has been on the ice in the series he is making something positive happen, even if it does not always result in an actual goal. This is notable to Pittsburgh because, well, Sundqvist used to play for the Penguins until he was traded — along with a first-round pick — to the Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round draft pick in the summer of 2017.
The trade was a hot-button topic at the time because Reaves was such a dramatic shift away from the Penguins’ style of play, and it was a fairly high price to pay for an enforcer (even if Reaves is more talented than your typical “enforcer” player in the NHL). It is becoming a thing once again because of the aftermath of the trade for both teams.
Reaves never fit in with the Penguins and was traded after half of a season, while Sundqvist had a breakout season with the Blues and became the solid, cheap depth player that the Penguins were probably hoping he would have become for them.
Now, I don’t want to make TOO big of a thing out of this because at the end of the day losing Oskar Sundqvist isn’t the type of trade on its own that is going to make-or-break a franchise. Especially since the Penguins eventually acquired Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, both of whom look to be really good players.
But I still think we should make some kind of a thing out of it given all of the perfect 20/20 hindsight at our disposal (as well as the initial reactions at the time of the trade), because it is turning out to be an annoyance.
Maybe a small dent.
One that did not really need to happen.
Here is where my frustration with this trade comes from:
- The Penguins didn’t need Reaves and didn’t need to make the trade at all. It was an irrational overreaction to something that was perceived to be an issue, probably wasn’t an issue, and even if it was, it wasn’t going to be fixed with this move.
- Sundqvist has turned out to be the exact type of player the Penguins have been looking for at the bottom of their lineup for two years now.
After the Penguins’ 2017 Stanley Cup win a significant portion of their center depth disappeared when Nick Bonino signed in free agency with the Nashville Predators and Matt Cullen went back to Minnesota (before returning to Pittsburgh a year later).
The Penguins went into the next offseason with a patchwork group of centers in the third-and fourth-line spots and when it quickly became clear that the Carter Rowneys and Greg McKeggs of the world were not going to cut it, they had to start making trades.
They traded Scott Wilson and a third-round draft pick for Riley Sheahan.
Then they traded a boatload of assets for Derick Brassard, a move that turned out to be a massive disappointment.
Brassard and Sheahan were eventually traded — along with multiple draft picks — for McCann and Bjugstad.
Again, I like those two. They are very good players and could be useful pieces for a while. That trade was easily the best one Jim Rutherford and the Penguins have made over the past two years. But follow the path the Penguins had to take to get them and see how insane all of it is with the number of assets they had to give up to fix a problem that only existed, in part, because they gave away a young, cheap, potential solution.
The counter argument to this is that Sundqvist played half a season in St. Louis a year ago and wasn’t this good, and had he done that in Pittsburgh the Penguins would have still been searching for another center and everyone would have been just as frustrated with the state of the position.
To that argument I say ... it is actually a very fair and valid point. He did struggle to produce in St. Louis a year ago (in a season where he was never fully healthy) and did not show much in his 30 games with the Penguins before that. A lot of the frustration over the trade right now is probably due more to recency bias than anything else. I am not going to disagree with that, because it is largely true.
That does not make it any less frustrating because it seems like a situation where a young player with some decent level expectation didn’t immediately produce and was just kind tossed aside and forgotten about.
In his first two years with the Penguins, Sundqvist was stuck in a numbers game where the team was loaded with better players ahead of him at his position, so he really didn’t get a huge opportunity to show what he could do. When he was in uniform, he didn’t get many minutes, he wasn’t put in positions to succeed offensively, and his numbers reflected that.
But when the roster spots opened up and created a situation where he should have been given a serious look, he was deemed to be expendable because he never really produced in his previous (and very limited) chances. Maybe if he had been given an opportunity in Pittsburgh following the departures of Bonino and Cullen his breakout could have happened here. If it did, maybe it could have filled a center spot on the cheap and kept them from having to give up several assets or bring back a 42-year-old Matt Cullen to try and recapture some magic.
At the end of the day finding another good third-or fourth-line center like Sundqvist shouldn’t be that difficult, because there are a lot of them floating around the NHL. So it is, again, not a huge deal that the Penguins traded him. But it should still be frustrating to see him excel in another uniform when the Penguins need players just like him (cheap, productive depth to complement their big-money stars at the top of the lineup) and did not need to trade him — especially in the deal they ended up trading him in.