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Ranking the Penguins wingers after the Kapanen trade

The Penguins’ newest winger is definitely near the top.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It is three days later and I am still trying to wrap my head around the Pittsburgh Penguins’ trade for Kasperi Kapanen.

Is it good?

Was it worth it?

What was the point?

I keep going back and forth on every single one of those questions and I keep coming back to the same answer: I like Kapanen. I think he is a good player that can — and most likely will — help them. But I think I would have used those assets to address a different need that might have been more pressing, such as a third-line center.

Yes, the offseason is still young (technically it has not even started yet officially — there are still playoffs going on!) and those other areas will probably be addressed, but you already used two of your biggest trade chips (the first-round pick and a top prospect) on a player that, while very good, you may not have entirely needed.

So that is where I stand. Now that Kapanen is here, though, he has a chance to stick around for a while given his age, potential, and contract situation. If recent history has shown us anything it is that any player acquired by Jim Rutherford is only months away from being traded away again, but Rutherford seems especially fond of Kapanen and the family relationship. Unless he totally flops I imagine he is going to stick around.

With that said, I wanted to take a look at where he fits in among the Penguins’ hierarchy of wingers (as the team currently sits) going into next season. So let’s rank them, taking into account the total package that each player provides the team regarding production, all-around play, age, and contract value. It is no surprise which player is at the top. This only includes players under contract for next season or under team control (restricted free agent).

For the purposes of this exercise I am figuring Jared McCann is a center, so I am not including him in the ranking.

  1. Jake Guentzel There is no other option for the top spot. Guentzel has quite literally everything going in the Penguins’ favor. He is an elite offensive producer, a smart overall player, at an age that should have him at his peak offensive production, and signed long-term to what has turned out to be a ridiculously team-friendly contract under the salary cap. Sure, playing with Crosby helps that production, but a lot of wingers (talented ones at that) have played in that spot and never come close to matching what Guentzel does.
  2. Bryan Rust This is where it gets tricky because I think the trio of Zucker, Kapanen, and Rust are all fairly similar in terms of their offensive production. I do not expect Rust to repeat what he did this past season offensively, at least not entirely. But I think he has shown he is capable of being a 20-goal, 50-point player that can play on pretty much any line and be a complete all around-player. And at a $3.5 million salary cap hit, that is a pretty good deal. He does not need to duplicate a point-per-game effort offensively to have value. He is one of the best “glue” pieces the team has given his versatility and all around play.
  3. Jason Zucker Honestly you could flip-flop Rust, Kapanen, and Zucker and I would not fight you on it. I almost put Kapanen in this spot because he is younger and a couple million dollars cheaper, but Zucker’s value defensively and as well as the fact they are still comparable offensively (with maybe a slight edge toward Zucker) gives him the edge.
  4. Kasperi KapanenThe thing I find most fascinating about this is how similar Kapanen and Zucker’s production has been the past two years, both in terms of traditional box score numbers and their underlying numbers. Remove the names and you would not be able to differentiate one from the other. They also, as pointed out here, came to the Penguins at a similar cost in terms of trade assets: A first-round pick, a very good prospect, and some additional throw-in pieces. But the general consensus of both trades could not be any more different. One (the Zucker trade) was almost universally loved, while the other (the Kapanen trade) was almost universally panned. In the end, though, there is not a huge difference between the two players and Kapanen might even have a little more long-term value against the cap given his age and contract. Assuming he pans out as expected.
  5. Patric HornqvistThis is where get into a little bit of a drop off. Hornqvist is fascinating to me because his overall production at the end of the season is still very good. But his age, his contract, and the way he is going to start slowing down eventually (sometimes it looks like he has) adds up in the negative column. Still, though, you can not argue with the fact he does still produce and is one of the emotional backbones of the team.
  6. Dominik Simon Don’t yell at me. Look, I still think the guy can play. He can’t score goals. We know that. He is not a finisher. But he is an absolutely fantastic playmaker, he is a possession driver, every line he plays on no matter who else is involved is better with him on it. He is also still going to be fairly cheap against the salary cap assuming he gets re-signed. The guy is a good hockey player. Not everybody is going to score goals.
  7. Brandon Tanev Tanev turned out to be far better than I ever could have anticipated, to the point where I really started to like him as a player. The only drawback with him is still the contract. It is a lot for the role he plays. He is very good in that role, maybe even excellent, but for a cap-strapped team going into a flat cap season it is a lot for a fourth-liner (even a very good fourth-liner).
  8. Zach Aston-ReeseHe is a nice component to that fourth-line, and he does not cost much, but I think out of the three (alongside Tanev and Teddy Blueger) he is probably the one that is most easily replaceable.