Ever since Brian Burke and Ron Hextall replaced Jim Rutherford as the leaders of the Pittsburgh Penguins front office there has been a ton of talk about what direction the roster is going to take.
It is no secret as to what type of team Burke prefers.
Big teams. “Hostile” (his word) teams. Teams that have an edge and play with “snarl.” Or whatever other buzzword you want to use to describe physical play and grit.
It is interesting because for all of his bluster about hostility and grit, he also appropriately values talent and superstars and knows you need them to win a Stanley Cup. His series of trades to land Henrik and Daniel Sedin in Vancouver is legendary. He acquired Teemu Selanne in Anaheim. He paid a huge price for Phil Kessel in Toronto and staunchly defended it when everybody told him he lost the trade. None of those players fit the “hostile” profile.
Still, it is a big theme with him.
There is some suspicion as to what Hextall is looking for, but I think that is more of a mystery and based on speculation and narrative as opposed to anything concrete. His teams in Philadelphia were never really overly big or physical.
But let us just pretend that is the direction they want to take the Penguins. Any time there is even a whisper of adding size or physicality to a team’s roster there is a segment of the viewing public (and I will include myself in this segment) that automatically assumes the worst case scenario and that the team is set to acquire a bunch of Erik Gudbransons, Jack Johnsons, and Tanner Glass’.
It does not always have to be that extreme. There are big, physical players in the NHL that are also really talented (Washington has a lot of them; St. Louis has a lot of them).
I still have some initial concerns here.
The first is not necessarily what Burke says. It is that the teams he has been involved with recently have, for lack of a better word, mostly stunk. His Toronto teams stunk. His Calgary teams were mostly mediocre. He has not been associated with a true, honest-to-goodness Stanley Cup contender since the pre-2010 Anaheim Ducks teams. That is more than a decade ago. We should not just blindly trust that he knows what direction is best for an NHL team to take because he has played a significant role in two different organizations that did nothing. These are just facts. That is not to say that he and Hextall can not (or will not) build a great team here. It is simply something to think about.
The other concern is that while there are very talented and very productive players that are also big and physical, they tend to be nearly impossible to acquire. When you put an emphasis on acquiring a particular trait (speed, size, grit, penalty killing, etc.) you usually end up getting the lesser players because teams are not going to trade the players that do everything well and fit that physical profile. If you have a 6-4, 220-pound power forward that scores 30 goals you are not trading the player.
Washington is not going to trade you Tom Wilson.
Calgary is not going to trade you Matthew Tkachuk.
You simply are not getting players like that in a trade. So you end up getting the knock-off Tom Wilson or the knock-off Matthew Tkachuk, and those players tend to not be very good. Adding somebody like, I don’t know, Lawson Crouse or Milan Lucic, is not going to help you. We saw Rutherford spend three years years trying to add “pushback” to his roster and only ended up making it worse.
So all of this has me thinking: Who is a big, physical player that not only brings talent and production to the table, but is also realistically available in a trade? Realistically available meaning, the team that has them is willing to potentially trade them, while they also have a salary cap number that the Penguins can figure out a way to manage?
It is a lot of moving parts that all have to work together at the exact same time.
To get a basic idea I broke the league down to forwards that measure at least 6-2 and 215 pounds. An arbitrary set of numbers, sure, but I think that qualifies as “big.” Certainly well above the average NHL player.
There are 86 forwards that fit that profile.
Many of them are All-Stars that are not going to be available. Players like Auston Matthews, Mikko Rantanen, Alex Ovechkin, Sean Couturier, Aleksander Barkov, Max Pacioretty. Brady Tkachuk, Tom Wilson, or Anders Lee.
Or players that have contracts that just make zero sense for the Penguins. Players like Jordan Staal, Ryan Johansen, John Anderson, Jack Eichel, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler,
Then there are several players that probably fall into the “do not want” category.
So who are the players right in the sweet spot of having that size, being able to produce, and being realistically available?
The list I was able to come up with includes the likes of Anthony Mantha, Alex Tuch, Marcus Foligno, Pavel Zacha, or maybe a Jordan Greenway or Max Comtois.
Tuch is probably a dream given his importance to Vegas and the fact he just signed a long-term deal, while Foligno (also starting a new contract next season), Zacha, Greenway, and Comtois are good players but hardly difference makers.
Mantha is the intriguing name here.
He is a massive human being, is a legit power forward, and is also a really good hockey player. He drives possession at an elite level on a lousy hockey team and is a finisher that can score at a 25-30 goal pace over 82 games. He is also a player that the Red Wings could realistically look to move given the state of their rebuild. His contract is pricey and some money would have to go out the other way, but the salary cap is overrated when it comes to making moves. Teams will figure out a way to get things done.
As far as pending free agents go, there are some intriguing options that do not quite fit the arbitrary frame mentioned above. The Tampa Bay duo of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are free agents after this season, as is Columbus’ Nick Foligno. All three bring above average size, physical play, and solid enough skill to potentially make them worth it.
If you want to go for the bigger players, you need to focus on players like Mantha or Coleman that actually have a chance of making you better. If you simply go for size just for the sake of adding size and grit then you run the risk of making your team worse. All of those traits are great and it is understandable why teams would want them. But if there is no skill or talent to go along with it it then none of it really matters.