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Penguins offseason progress report: Are they any better?

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They made their team younger and faster, but those are not the only issues that matter.

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

On Monday the Penguins’ website wrote about the team having three objectives entering the offseason and how they have achieved all of them with their roster moves.

Those objectives: Get younger, get faster, become harder to play against.

With the additions of Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun, and Brandon Tanev, combined with the subtractions of Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta, Matt Cullen (we should be assuming he is not returning, right?) they are definitely younger. They can not really be classified as a “young” team by any stretch, but they did get younger. That is important.

Along with that they are also probably a faster team, though probably still significantly short of what they were at the height of their championship powers during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Harder to play against is impossible to quantify, and quite frankly, it is ridiculous to even try. I have an idea what the Penguins think “harder to play against” means, and it’s probably some kind of “grit” or “jam” or any other hockey buzzword you can throw around about a try-hard player that will finish their checks. That is what every coach and GM seems to focus on when they talk about “hard to play against.” What is funny about it is when you look at every player poll or listen to players talk about the players that are tough to play against it is always a who’s who list of NHL All-Stars and super-skilled players. It is almost as if they have a tougher time trying to wrestle the puck away from a talented player than they do avoiding a usually meaningless check from some fourth-line grinder.

So are the Penguins harder to play against? I honestly have no earthly idea, and anyone that thinks they do know is probably lying to you or making it up.

We will know if they are harder to play against when they hit the ice, and the scoreboard will probably tell us.

Now, for the important question and the only offseason objective that truly matters.

Did the Penguins make themselves better?

Being younger, faster, harder to play against, or anything else you want to focus on does not really matter if the team itself does not actually improve.

All of those elements can definitely play into making the team better, but just simply getting younger or faster does mot necessarily mean it is going to lead to improvement. A team of rookies will probably get slaughtered over 82 games. A team of Konstantin Koltsov’s and Rico Fata’s will fly around the ice and blind you with their speed, but they might be the lowest scoring team in the league. Your team full of jam and grit will get embarrassed when it comes to trying to play with the puck.

So, again, it all comes back to a very simple question: Are the Penguins a better hockey team, today, on July 9, 2019, with Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun, and Brandon Tanev on their roster instead of Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta, Matt Cullen, and whatever other impending salary cap dump might be lurking around the corner?

  • The addition of Kahun is probably the one that intrigues me the most because he is the type of forward the Penguins needed to acquire because he does check those “young and fast” boxes, and more importantly he is probably an upgrade over some of their complementary forwards. He also still has a chance to get better. If you were to build a blueprint of a player that could help move the needle back in the right direction for the Penguins, he is probably a good place to start, and the Maatta price is a fair one even if it is a costly one.

Maatta alone is not going to make-or-break the Penguins’ defense, but he did play a lot of minutes over the years and his absence means someone else has to fill them. The concern there is the internal options are not all that intriguing, because no Maatta means more of Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. Contrary to general manager Jim Rutherford’s public position the Penguins’ defense has been an issue for a couple of years now (and still is!) and as of this moment the only solution has been to subtract a solid, if unspectacular player.

  • Kessel’s flaws and his situation with the Penguins are well documented at this point and rehashing any of them is a waste of time for all of us.

Given the circumstances the Penguins were in with him, I think the return of Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph is more than acceptable.

But again ... are you better?

I don’t mind Galchenyuk as a player and he is a legit top-six player in the NHL that will produce. I don’t expect his production to take a significant leap in Pittsburgh (I explored that here) but rather continue to be at the 20-25 goal, 50-point level it has been at throughout his career.

The problem: He has a lot of the same flaws as Kessel and does not appear to have the strength that Kessel has. Galchenyuk is also probably only a short-term fit here given his contract situation.

Given all of that I said at the time (and still believe) the keys to the trade are the development of Joseph (he is now the top defense prospect in the system) and what the Penguins do with the future salary cap space. Unless Galchenyuk DOES see a huge spike in his production and performance re-signing him does not seem to be an option because even now he probably commands at least $5-6 million on a future deal, which pretty much eliminates all of your new cap space.

The Penguins already eliminated a chunk of that with the signing of Tanev.

  • Contrary to my (probably over the top) criticism of Brandon Tanev I do not hate him as a player. He is a perfectly fine fourth-line or (if needed) third-line player. He very well might help them. When word first surfaced of his signing in Pittsburgh my immediate reaction was that it was fine as long as they didn’t give him too much money over too many years.

The problem is they did both.

And yes, the term matters. And yes, the money matters.

The term matters because it is lunacy to give a bottom-line player or bottom-pairing defender a long-term contract, especially in free agency. This past week over at NBC I looked at long-term free agent deals since the start of the 2009 offseason and almost every single one of them ended in a buyout or a trade before the end of the contract. You invest long-term in the core. Not the edges. The Penguins now have significant term and money in the edges, and there is just no reason at all to do that. When whey were winning Stanley Cups one of the things you could say about their roster construction and salary cap situation is that they did not have any bad contracts and did not have non-essential core players locked in long-term. They now have a lot of those contracts, and it is going to hurt them in both the short-term and long-term as they have to shed other players to make it work under the salary cap.

So, with all of that said we need to go back to the important question the Penguins have to ask themselves: Are. They. Better?

Short-term, Galchenyuk looks to be a clear downgrade from Kessel but Kahun and Tanev are probably upgrades over some of the depth forwards. They replaced a high-end player with a lesser player, but they did probably make themselves a little deeper. That is fine.

The defense is still a significant issue, and is probably even a little worse.

Overall, I am having trouble seeing the improvement or how the team moved closer to a Stanley Cup.

They made changes, and significant ones, but they still seem to be in a similar position to where they were when they were shaking the New York Islanders’ hands.

They may not be significantly worse overall, but it is hard to argue they are significantly better or in a position to get significantly better.

Rutherford still has time to make more moves, and there is almost certainly at least one more on the horizon.

Poll

Are the Pittsburgh Penguins a better hockey team today than they were at the start of the offseason?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Yes
    (705 votes)
  • 67%
    No
    (1444 votes)
2149 votes total Vote Now

It needs to be a game-changer in a positive way.