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Are “no plans” the Penguins deadline plans?

A look at why the Pens current team might just be their playoff team

2021 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Evan Schall/NHLI via Getty Images

The Tribune-Review had a really insightful interview last week with Penguins team president Brian Burke that’s worth checking out if you missed it in the All-Star break.

Even as the more public-facing and gregarious of the Pens’ front office staff, Burke hasn’t much been in the spotlight or making too many headlines now a little after a year of being on the job in Pittsburgh. Unlike the previous general manager, who seemingly conducted his business in public and was not shy about sharing just about every fleeting thought and observation, the Penguins of today are much more buttoned up as a management staff.

Which can be good and bad in different ways, but when GM Ron Hextall or Brian Burke talk, it certainly makes it worth paying attention to, since they don’t often do so. As you can see above, Burke touches on a wide variety of subjects, in his always entertaining perspective, but perhaps the most timely comments regarded to the upcoming NHL trade deadline on March 21st.

When asked if he thought the team had any areas of improvement, Burke said:

“There’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room right now called the salary cap. We’re capped out. You might have a wish list. You might say at Christmas time, here’s my list for Santa. There’s no list right now because we have no cap space. The only way we can create cap space is to move guys that we think are important to us right now. We like this team. We’re not intent on making big changes to the group we have. Unless we can do that, we can’t make big changes.

“There are two aspects to it. One, we’re capped out. There’s not much we can do unless we artificially create room. So how do you do that? You move a player that you really like that’s an important part of our team. It doesn’t make sense. No. 2 is, from our perspective, we have traded a lot of (future) assets. We don’t have much (in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). We haven’t had a lot of draft picks. We’ve got to be careful with our assets. Even as we like to add, we’ve got to be careful of the price tag, as well. The double whammy is one, we’re capped out, two, we’ve got to start preserving some of our assets, as well. We’ve got to balance those two things. If we can add, we will.”

These comments and thoughts are practically completely consistent since the Burke/Hextall regime took over in January 2021. “If we can add, we will” but “we’re capped out and we don’t want to trade too many more future assets”.

Burke saying, “you move a player that you really like that’s an important part of our team. It doesn’t make sense” seems to fall in the Mike Matheson, Jason Zucker and Marcus Pettersson territory, all players traded a million times over by fans on the internet, but not as quickly or practically by the actual management.

On the other end of things, Burke also expanded on management’s preference to increase the prospect pool in the near future:

“We’re happy with (the 2021) draft. We didn’t have a lot of picks. We’re happy with the players that we took. We’re not going to change our formula. … The two things that you have to counterbalance here are being capped out. What do you want to add? And being cognizant of the fact that our talent pool is limited. Trading high picks for an outside chance of winning a round, that math doesn’t make sense anymore.”

That last sentence is very impactful, and you should read it again. It’s probably the biggest clear difference in the Hextall and Jim Rutherford era. Rutherford was the Pens’ GM from the 2014-2020 drafts. Rutherford only made a first round pick in 2014 (Kasperi Kapanen, who he traded a year later) and then again in 2019, dealing away Pittsburgh’s 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020 first round picks in various trades designed to win now.

Under Hextall, all public indications are this is going to change. The Pens currently hold their first and second round picks in the upcoming 2022 draft. They have not made picks in both the first AND second rounds of the draft since 2012, a trend that the new management seems determined to reverse.

While the merits of such a strategy can be debated at the late-stage of the Pens’ current Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin window — hockey prospects take a while to develop and have a very high miss rate — it is certainly true that the Pens have a very bleak system right now of talent in the 18-23ish age range. It’s virtually non-existent.

So if the Pens don’t want to trade NHL players who are a part of the team now, and they don’t want to trade draft picks, and they don’t have the salary cap space to make moves anyways, where does that leave the team before the trade deadline?

Pretty quiet, or so it would seem. In some ways Zucker and Teddy Blueger could be seen as the “internal deadline adds” since both figure to be back from their respective injuries around the time of the March 21st deadline.

What else could the Pens do? The backup goalie situation could need attention, depending on the performance of Casey DeSmith. DeSmith has a $1.25 million salary cap hit, so even if the other team were to retain 50%, that would put Pittsburgh in the market for a $2.5 million goalie or less. Is that out there and worth adding some value to get? Possibly.

Another player to watch for in the event of a trade could be Zach Aston-Reese, if the Pens want to work around the margins of the lineup. Aston-Reese carries a $1.725 million cap hit, and when the team was healthier was something of a quiet healthy scratch not too long ago on January 20th. Aston-Reese is a key penalty killer and leads the team in hits, the Pens may live with the fact his offense isn’t there but his defense can be of use for this stretch run.

But if there is a move to be made, Aston-Reese commands a bit of salary and isn’t as vital as he perhaps could be or was in the past. A potential trade of him could mean bringing back as much as $3.45 million of a cap hit in return, if the other team retains the maximum of 50% of their player’s salary.

As of now though, if Burke is to be taken at his word that “we have no space, we have no list, we like the team”, it could be a quiet trade deadline day in Pittsburgh next month. It looks increasingly likely that out of necessity that no sweeping trade or major addition will be made to the current group, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to close observers of the team.

The time around the trade deadline in Pittsburgh has typically been exciting throughout this era. Whether it’s been Marian Hossa, Hal Gill, Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray, Justin Schultz, Ron Hainsey, Derrick Brassard, Patrick Marleau or many others, there’s been no shortage of impact players, depth pieces, Hall of Famers that have joined the Pens around the deadline in years past. That probably isn’t going to be the case in 2022.

The Hextall/Burke regime has taken a quiet, steady path and been pleased with the results despite injuries. Even if they don’t openly say it much, it looks like they will continue to chart the course ahead without many outside corrections in the near future.