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Prioritizing the Penguins’ offseason

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I have no idea what the Penguins will do, but I do have some thoughts on what they should do.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I was doing a radio appearance in Omaha on Monday (everyone has playoff fever, baby!), and in the middle of the spot, I was asked for my thoughts on what the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins will look like. Not going to lie, but I kind of froze for a second to think about it because I honestly have zero idea what to expect.

That is amazing to me.

I know what I think the team should look like (it should feature Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and probably Phil Kessel, too) if there is a serious desire to win another Stanley Cup in the next couple of years. But I am not sure if that is the direction the offseason will go, and I have no idea what an angry Jim Rutherford is going to do with a roster that was swept out of Round 1 by a team that was swept out of Round 2. Honestly, I think the Islanders’ swift exit right after beating the Penguins only further increases the odds management does something outrageous, because it is only going to reinforce the idea that something is wrong or broken.

Make no mistake, there is something broken with this team. I just don’t know if the Penguins are looking in the right spots for what to fix. Where do I think they should go? Let’s put together a little roadmap here.

  1. What happened to Patric Hornqvist, and can it be fixed?

Lost in all of the analysis of Evgeni Malkin’s season and the future of Kris Letang and Phil Kessel is that the Penguins really do have a significant problem with a key part of their core. When Hornqvist signed his latest long-term contract, the criticism of the deal was centered around the term and that after two or three productive seasons it might become a problem as Hornqvist’s career — which involves a physically grueling and demanding style of play — inevitably tumbles off of a cliff into the hockey abyss.

One year into it and things are already looking bleak.

The traditional production numbers declined overall, the possession numbers dipped, and a player that has made his living as a goal-scorer by being a volume shooter saw his shots per game numbers drop to a career low. As if that all wasn’t concerning enough for a player that will be entering his age 33 season, he was a complete non-factor in every possible way after yet another head injury. In his last 38 games of the season (including playoffs) he had three goals (only one at even-strength) and eight assists (only two of which were primary assists).

Was all of that a fluke? Was it injury related and something that an offseason of rest and recovery can fix? Or is it the sign of a player that has already started to fall off the cliff? If it’s the latter, that’s a concern because the Penguins have more than $5 million in cap space tied up in this player for another four years.

One of the big things the 2016 and 2017 Penguins had going for them was that they did not have many — if any — truly bad contracts on their books. They might have a couple of them now, and if Hornqvist doesn’t rebound this is going to be a big one.

Which brings us to another important question: How confident are you a 33-year-old power forward with a lot of miles on his tires is going to rebound?

2. Who goes on defense?

I don’t care what the GM says, this is not the best defense the Penguins have had during his time with the team. I know it’s not. You know it’s not. We all know it’s not. So let’s stop kidding ourselves. We also know that someone out of this group is going to have to go, not only because they have too many bodies, but because they have to trim salary somewhere to stay under the salary cap and this is as good a place as any to start. I’m not going to turn this into a Jack Johnson thing, but the reality is the Penguins have $7.25 million tied up in him and Erik Gudbranson over the next two years (and another $3.25 million in Johnson alone for two more years after that). That is too much money to have tied up in players that should be third-pairing or seventh defenders. Way too much. Add in the $4 million per year for Olli Maatta and the $5.5 million for Justin Schultz and this is a really expensive defense corps that, objectively speaking, isn’t that good.

The only two players on this blue line that should be guaranteed to return (in my world anyway) are Letang and Brian Dumoulin.

Any of the others should be aggressively shopped to see what is out there, or if there is a way to dump one of those less-than-desirable contracts. You’re not going to get great returns, but if you can shed some salary cap space you have to find a way to do it.

Which brings us to the next part with the defense...

3. Who can you bring in on the defense?

The defense issue for me is a two-part problem. The first being getting rid of the extra bodies and wasted cap space. The second being finding more players that can move the puck, skate, and not get pinned in their own zone for extended periods of time. The Penguins have lost this from blue line and it was a huge problem all season and a massive one in the playoffs. Other than Letang and Dumoulin there isn’t a single player back there that is reliable in doing it (even Schultz isn’t great at it) and that can’t be something that continues. Basically, the entire defense needs to be overhauled and has needed that for a couple of years now. Forget “pushback” and physicality. Give me skaters that can pass and get the puck to the forwards. The Hurricanes had it and beat the Islanders in four. The Penguins didn’t have it and, well, you saw what happened.

4. Are Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann long-term parts to help fix the forward depth?

This is probably the one trade Rutherford made over the past two years that actually worked out as hoped. I had my doubts about Bjugstad when he first arrived and thought he was going to end up as nothing more than trade fodder within the next year, but his game grew on me. Finding consistent scoring depth around the top-six has been a problem at times over the past two years, and the potential is there for these two to help fix that. McCann has all the tools to be a really good player, but I don’t know if he’s a 15 percent shooter like he was immediately after the trade, so you have to be prepared for a little bit of a drop there.

I am still firmly in the “Dominik Simon is a good player and can help your team” camp, and I liked what I saw from Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese at times. The Penguins need young players like them and McCann to emerge, especially with the salary cap situation being what it is. I’d like to see them get that chance.

5. Do not do anything outrageous

I have already beaten this drum repeatedly and the offseason is not even a month old, so let’s do it again. The Penguins still have a chance to win another Stanley Cup with this core, and their best chance for another championship in the next decade is keeping this core together and trying to tinker around them, just as they did in 2015 when the team looked to have hit a plateau.

There is so much concern about the Penguins eventually becoming the Blackhawks or Kings that some people are willing to become the Red Wings — where you just stumble through sustained mediocrity for 10 years, never being truly bad but also never being... good.

Greatness is still within your grasp with this group, so go for it while it is there. Even if you trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang this summer, you are almost certainly not going to get back a return that is going to keep your window open any longer than it otherwise will be. There’s not a trade or series of trades to be made that is going to save the Penguins from what awaits them when Sidney Crosby retires. Do not ruin the rest of his career and his chances for another Stanley Cup by thinking you can change that. Because you can’t. There is going to come a time in the next five or six years where the Penguins are not good. That is inevitable. Do not speed that process up and rob yourself of the potential for another championship because you are trying to push that point back another season or two.