When Evgeni Malkin left the lineup after an awkward collision with Boston’s Jarred Tinordi on March 16, joining fourth-line center Teddy Blueger on the injured reserve, one might have expected Mark Jankowski—who was signed this offseason in the explicit hope of filling the third-line center role— to be shuffled up to a more prominent position in the lineup.
Instead, with the dust having settled from the powerhouse Russian’s sudden departure, Jared McCann has taken over Malkin’s spot. Meanwhile, Jankowski has been relegated to the fourth line, where his ice time often dips under 10 minutes per game.
He’s not the fit the Penguins were hoping for when they signed him. That, combined with arecent offensive outburst might make him the best shot Pittsburgh has at receiving a return at the trade deadline.
Fellow fourth-liner Radim Zohorna stood out in two of the Penguins’ five goals during Thursday night’s 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers. He zipped up the right side before deftly out-maneuvering goaltender Ilya Shesterkin with a backhand-to-forehand move to open scoring, then displayed admirable patience at the side of the net to set up Evan Rodrigues’ game-winner.
The undrafted Czech rookie has been fun to watch ever since he scored on his first NHL shot back on March 25 against the Buffalo Sabres. But he’s also helped distract from the fact that, for the most part, the Penguins’ fourth line in the Malkin-less recent weeks has been struggling to keep possession of the puck.
According to Natural Stat Trick following Thursday’s win, Jankowski’s Corsi For% on the season was just over 44%, meaning the other team has possession of the puck the majority of the time he’s on the ice. His linemates’ possession numbers likewise dip alongside him, likely due in part to his tendency to dump the puck into the offensive zone instead of entering on a rush.
Of course, this alone isn’t enough to dump Jankowski, purely because of the Penguins’ cap situation. Jankowski’s $700,000 contract looks all the better alongside monster hits like Mike Matheson’s ($4.875 million) which make it almost impossible for Pittsburgh to take on another contract without dumping at least one other player.
Jankowski (who registered seven points in 56 games for Calgary last season) isn’t enough of a get on his own to spark any sort of eye-catching deal— but in a multi-player trade, he might be a fit for a buyer looking for depth centers.
But if the Penguins were to become a buyer at the rapidly approaching deadline— which, given their place in the standings, it looks like they will be— Jankowski, a cheap depth center in a season where teams are riddled with illness and injuries, could make a tasty piece of bait to make a deal.
When general manager Ron Hextall praised the Pens’ depth centers earlier this week, he mentioned Jared McCann and Frederick Gaudreau by name. Unconsciously or unintentionally, Jankowski went unmentioned.
Malkin and Teddy Blueger are taking steps towards returning, with both on the ice in some capacity. With two more centers soon to be added to back the mix, it would seem Jankowski’s status with the Penguins moves to being potentially expendable.
After going a 21-game stretch without a single point earlier this season, Jankowski now has six points (2G+4A) in the past four games. This article will now be summed up in two ways, depending on which camp you’re coming from.
For Ron Hextall and the Pittsburgh Penguins: SELL HIGH! Jankowski’s Thursday empty-netter officially set his trade value at a season high. Get something for him if possible while he’s racked up points in recent games and improve a fourth line that is hemorrhaging possession opportunities while you’re at it.
For any other GM of any other team: BUY NOW! What could be better than a center with NHL experience who could potentially be rehabbed into his former 30-point self? He’s a bargain of a contract at under one million dollars, and his RFA status after this season means you don’t have to commit long-term. And did I mention the man has four points in his last two games? Grab him while he’s hot!
Now the questions are these: what kind of deal could the Penguins put together using Jankowski, who would be expendable to sell alongside him to get something decent in return? Or has his recent hot streak shown he could serve Pittsburgh as depth in the form of an injury replacement for their playoff run?