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Quiet trade deadline ahead for the Pens?

GM Ron Hextall says he feels no urgency to make a move, but would if the right one is out there for the right cost

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New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins have never been afraid to strike in the days before the NHL’s annual trading deadline. Whether it’s been adding high-profile names over the years like Bill Guerin, Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Gary Roberts — heck you can go all the way back to getting Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson from Hartford in ‘91 — it’s practically in the Pens’ DNA to be active and try to load up for a long playoff run late in the season.

As you’ve heard a million times, this year is different in so many ways. And that might extend over to Pittsburgh’s trade deadline plans at all. The deadline is on Monday (April 12) afternoon this year, yet the Pens may not be among the more active participants of one of the league’s most exciting days.

General manager Ron Hextall made a conference call with several media outlets yesterday, and here are some key takeaways (and the initial stories from the Post-Gazette, Tribune Review and The Athletic $).

Hextall happy with team

Since Hextall was hired on February 9th, the Pens are 19-8-1 and have been one of the league’s best teams despite significant injury issues plaguing them all season long. Understandably, Hextall’s tone seems quite pleased with how the year has gone and doesn’t appear to see a big need to make major or several trades:

“I thought it was a good team we were taking over. Obviously, at the time, we weren’t playing up to (full) capability. Then all of a sudden, we turned it around and played very good hockey for six weeks. To me, every year you go into it and look at how many Stanley Cup contenders are there? I think there’s a lot this year. There is a balance in the league. I think there is a lot of teams that have a chance of winning. I certainly put us as one of those teams. I think our players believe that, as well. If you watch, just, again, the last six weeks, guys have played pretty well. And we’ve been missing some guys.

“If we get those guys back, the danger is you tend to sit back a little bit and think that (when Malkin and Kapanen are) added to the group, it’s just going to be easy. And honestly, it’s not. So we’ll have to fight that at some point. I like the team, I like the depth. Certainly don’t like the last two games. We’ve got some cleaning up to do for sure, but I like where we’re at right now.”

Not mentioned by Hextall in talking about centers who have stepped up and impressed: Mark Jankowski. Which isn’t a surprise, but felt worth pointing out that omission...

Center no longer such a key focus

It seemed the Penguins were in deep trouble when Evgeni Malkin and Teddy Blueger both went down injured in a matter of days last month. However, the emergence of Jared McCann and Frederick Gaudreau has eased Hextall’s urgency in looking to trade for a new centerman.

“Probably a month ago, we were more active looking for a center. The way things have flushed out, we’ve had some guys do some pretty good jobs in the middle. Jared (McCann) and Freddy Gaudreau have really stepped up for us. There isn’t quite as much urgency now. But if we can make our team better … it would really have to make sense for us to make a deal from a cap standpoint and also something that we feel would make us better.”

“You can’t overlook Freddy. He’s doing a really good job. There’s a trust factor. He’s a very responsible player. He puts the puck in the right spots. He makes the plays when they’re there. He’s stepped in and done a really good job for us. It’s certainly something that’s got all of our attention. He plays hard every night. Plays in traffic. Work ethic. Grit. I can’t profess that I knew him really well coming in, but he’s made a really good impression on all of us.”

Not mentioned by Hextall in talking about centers who have stepped up and impressed: Mark Jankowski. Which isn’t a surprise, but felt worth pointing out that omission...

Short season trade woes

One reason the Pens might not be major players in the trade market is the stark reality that there isn’t much of a trade market right now. Being a short season with all teams only playing ~40 games right now at the deadline (instead of the ~60 in a normal year) there hasn’t been a ton of separation. There are currently only five teams that are 8+ points out of a playoff spot, which means buyers like Hextall don’t have a lot of sellers to match up with.

“I don’t think it’s probably as active a year because so many teams are still in the hunt. We’ve seen teams gain four or six points in a week. Teams aren’t quite as active as typical. But there is some activity. We’re looking around to see what’s available and to see if there’s anything that will make us better.”

Without naming names, Hextall is probably referencing a team like Nashville who most considered out of the running and a potential seller of players. The Predators have won eight of their last ten games and now sit in fourth place in their division, a playoff spot. Many other teams aren’t going to make this type of turnaround, but hope springs eternal and teams don’t want to send the message of punting on the year and cutting off the chances of making a push by dealing their best players for future assets.

Pens would like to get bigger

It’s no secret that the Pens’ management would like to morph into a bigger and heavier team if they can, and that certainly is on Hextall’s mind. At the same time, this isn’t a manager who is in a rush to add a Milan Lucic type that isn’t going to help the team win.

“We would like a big physical forward. We’ve said that right from the start. The right guy has got to be out there, though, at the right price. Sometimes, you have to wait for something to come along that a team is willing to part with. But we would like to add that. You could always use depth in the middle. It’s reality. There’s a lot of centers that can play the wing. There’s not a lot of wings that can play the middle. Center’s always a position that you’d like to have depth at. But again, over the past four to six weeks, a couple guys have proven they can be pretty effective players for us in the middle.”

Deadline addition over a hockey trade

From the sounds of it, it seems like Hextall is more in a “trade a draft pick to add a depth forward on an expiring contract” camp a lot more than “make the ‘hockey trade’ to send Marcus Pettersson out for a forward with years left on his deal” camp right now. (Emphasis added for effect).

“When you’re a manager, you’ve got to listen to everything and consider everything. But I do like the chemistry that we have built up over the last six, seven weeks. So you certainly can’t overlook that. So I wouldn’t anticipate, right now, a hockey deal. If there’s going to be anything, I think it would be more of a move to help us right now. We do have a (salary) cap issue next year, so you have to be cognizant of that. There is expansion next year, you have to be cognizant of that. Anything we look at right now will probably be more something that can make us better right now.”

One other reason it looks like the Pens will be minor players, at most, at the deadline is that Hextall:

A) doesn’t have a lot of appealing assets to give up
B) doesn’t want to give up the best stuff he has

“It would really have to make us noticeably a better team to part with future assets. If that’s there, we will weigh it out. But again, it’s got to give us a good jolt as a team. We have to balance now and the future. But we’re certainly not going to give critical future assets away for players that might make us minimally better or add depth. I think our depth is good on (defense) and up front. Again, we’re as banged up now as hopefully as you can be. … But again, if there’s an impact player that we could add and the price is right, we would look at it.”

Overall, I think from these comments an ideal move for Hextall at this point sounds like it would be to send Juuso Riikola for a fourth line center on an expiring contract. That may or may not be possible, but I wouldn’t anticipate any fireworks or a major deal this time around.

The Pens are unwilling to part with their best young assets, namely their 2021 second round pick, Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Samuel Poulin all would appear to be safe from trade talk. With that, also means the Pens aren’t going to be huge players in the trade market either.

A future mid-round draft pick for a player in the range of like a Luke Glendening or Bobby Ryan or Carl Soderberg or something in that regards sounds about like the aisle the Pens are most likely shopping in this deadline, if they don’t just stand pat and hope that their “trade deadline acquisitions” are players like Malkin, Bluger, Kasperi Kapanen and Brandon Tanev coming back from injuries.