It happened again last night.
For at least the fifth game this season, Kasperi Kapanen started a game on a line with Evgeni Malkin, and didn’t finish it there.
In fact, Malkin took shifts with four different wingers last night. On his left was Brock McGinn. When McGinn was felled by blocking a shot Evan Rodrigues (remember him?) got a few looks with Malkin. On the right there was Kapanen, but Dominik Simon took his spot late in the game in a tie 4-4 game.
McGinn, Rodrigues, Kapanen, Simon. That’s either not a lot of impressive offensive talent, or players who have not generated much in the way of offense lately.
What does general manager Ron Hextall, ever the quiet observer, make of all of this? Does he trust that Rodrigues will get back to scoring points? That coach Mike Sullivan can coax some sort of performance out of Kapanen?
It could be the Penguins’ most interested question ahead of the March 21st NHL trade deadline. Because they need a second line that can score, and right now they’re not exactly giving Malkin the best shot of success.
Cobbling together a not great situation for Malkin is nothing new, and nothing that Sullivan and the Pens haven’t been able to overcome. Who can forget Malkin playing with Eric Fehr at times in the 2016 playoffs? He played more the following spring with Scott Wilson. That was the Malkin of five and six years ago, however, and he also played with names like Chris Kunitz, Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel as well in those playoff runs, which the Penguins do not have to offer now.
The solution for this seems to center around Kapanen, the player who scored 30 points in 40 games last year, but has lost much of his confidence, swagger and has freely shared the admission that he needs and wants to play better. But that better play hasn’t come with Malkin, which begs the question about whether or not Hextall will feel the need to make a change or bet on Kapanen coming around.
Hextall also has Kapanen’s contract to consider, as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, even in a down season Kapanen could command more than Pittsburgh is willing or able to pay. Moving Kapanen now in an effort to jump-start the second line and provide more help for Malkin might make sense in the short-term and bigger picture.
The salary cap and Pittsburgh’s relation to the top of it makes trades tricky, but using Kapanen’s $3.2 million cap hit (and salary retention from the other team) means the cap shouldn’t be much of an issue on a trade for a winger at or under $6 million if Kapanen is going the other way.
What names are out there? A home run, top of the market type of add like Tomas Hertl or J.T. Miller isn’t really feasible or realistic for what we know of the Pens’ stated desires right now. They simply don’t have the pieces to acquire an elite player, nor the appetite to consider moving many more draft picks.
That strong wish to keep what they have though, has to be weighed against what is seen on the ice and also the struggles of the second line.
Frank Seravelli at Daily Faceoff has listed the following as “potential pieces on the move” in the Atlantic Division as: Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson, Detroit’s Vladislav Namestnikov, Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen, Ottawa’s Nick Paul and Zach Sanford. Other names out there from beyond the Atlantic could include Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell, Chicago’s Dominik Kubalik, and Columbus’ Max Domi.
Some of those players are not necessarily skill fits for top-six action, but considering the Pens’ third line isn’t scoring either, shaking up or adding a new face could be the boost the team needs.
There could be Vancouver in play as well, Jim Rutherford has always liked the Kapanen family. However, it’s not like Rutherford brought many of his players from Carolina to Pittsburgh, so expecting him to take on the same things in Vancouver that he did with the Penguins is a bridge too far. (Also, Patrik Allvin, not Rutherford, is the GM). And Rutherford said there was “no urgency” to make trades, and he’s never been shy to say when he wants to mix up the action.
Then again, maybe a shake-up isn’t in the cards after all for the Pens. Hextall often notes that this team has done nothing but win since he arrived, he likes the team chemistry and cohesion and certainly isn’t the type of manager to make trades.
Pittsburgh should be getting Teddy Blueger and Jason Zucker back in about a month or so, right around the timing of the deadline. Those are some nice internal “deadline additions” that will cost nothing. However if this season and the past few years have taught us anything, Hextall shouldn’t just count on the injured players returning and the top-12 forwards on the team all being healthy and available at the same time. Building depth and adding extra bodies is never a bad strategy ahead of the NHL playoffs.
How to handle and manage the Kapanen situation, and how that inter-locks with Malkin is starting to emerge as Hextall’s biggest decision of action or inaction before the deadline.
Hextall is the fourth general manager in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, but he is running into a similar problem as his predecessors - how to solve the issue of surrounding the star centers with capable wingers. For years the cries were “wingers for Sid”, a problem largely solved by Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and then once they aged out there was a fairly seamless transition into the Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust era of excellent Crosby linemates.
Now, the familiar issue extends deeper on the roster with Malkin. The coaching staff is clearly searching for something, as playing him with four different wingers last night illustrates, though situations and injury did play a part in making that number so high.
What Hextall action Hextall decides to take, or the decision to hold firm hoping Zucker will be the key, could loom large for another playoff run.