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Can the Jeff Carter trade predict Ron Hextall’s next one?

It was way out of left field when the Penguins traded for Jeff Carter last year, is GM Ron Hextall going to follow that path again?

New Jersey Devils v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last year at this time, under then a fresh change of general manager, no one really knew what to make or expect of what Ron Hextall. Known factors around the trade deadline included:

  • 1) Hextall was positive about his team and confident they were pretty good
  • 2) The Penguins were right at the top of the salary cap with little ability to bring in much salary
  • 3) The Pens didn’t have a lot of solid draft picks or prospects to offer in a trade, and wanted to keep the best of what they had
  • 4) Hextall still found a way to make an unexpected move to bring in a great fit in Jeff Carter

Not much has changed in a year, the first three of the points above about the Penguins in the spring of 2021 also still apply verbatim about the Penguins and the sense of their management strategy in the spring of 2022.

This team isn’t going to shock and awe by adding the highest profile name at the deadline. They aren’t in any kind of position to do so, and don’t even want to do that anyways.

On deadline day last year, as point four says, Hextall did create a surprise. He added Jeff Carter from Los Angeles for two third round picks (2022, 2023). In terms of expected value, a pair of later third round picks mean relatively little in the big scheme of things. And LA also picked up half, or $2.6 million, of Carter’s salary for about 1.25 seasons, which was mighty nice of them.

Carter was tied to the Pens in no advance trade chatter, either from local Pittsburgh media or the cottage industry of the national “talking heads” reporters who tend to get all the scoops and break news.

What does last year’s deadline move and this year’s somewhat similar conditions tell us about the Penguins’ possible future plans?

#1 Happiness with the team

Hextall didn’t panic or make a move when Casey DeSmith was struggling, and that has paid off with DeSmith going 3-0-1 with a .934 save% in his last five appearances. The goaltending situation doesn’t look that bad, or at least, there’s not much to do about an external add at this point (especially with third stringer Louis Domingue seen back on his skates recently prior to team practice sessions).

Defensively, Mark Friedman has stepped up admirably with Mike Matheson hurt. The team still has Pierre-Olivier Joseph in reserve and Juuso Riikola still exists, though it remains unclear if coaching/management realizes that. (Kidding...kind of). Either way, the Pens’ defensive mix and depth is about right. Sure, they’re in deep trouble if an important player goes down, but any team is in deep trouble if a key defender is hurt this time of year.

Up front, there are trouble spots. Practically every forward not named Crosby, Malkin and Rust aren’t scoring goals these days — even Jake Guentzel only has two in his last 10. That’s not a big concern about Guentzel, but it sure is a different story for second and third line forwards (Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, Evan Rodrigues, Brock McGinn) who have gone ice cold. Jason Zucker will be back eventually, but adding secondary scoring options has emerged over this season as the team’s longest lasting issue.

#2 Salary cap

An issue with making a trade is that the Penguins have no cap space to do so. However, the upper limit of the cap is typically a minor issue at this time of the year.

Last year, Pittsburgh massaged the upper limit of the cap and exceeded it through use of the long term injured reserve. In fact, the only reason the Pens were able to fit Carter and add a salary cap hit was by placing Brandon Tanev on LTIR for the rest of the regular season one day before trading for Carter. That doesn’t seem to be the case this season with a player injured for the rest of the regular season, but beyond LTIR there is another solution to the salary cap.

It’s Kasperi Kapanen. He’s got two goals since Christmas. Two points in his last 16 games. Kapanen is arbitration eligible this summer, is he in the long term plans? Not sure how he could be, so it might as well be time to move on.

Kapanen has a $3.2 million cap hit, which means with a maximum of 50% retainage on the other side, Pittsburgh could trade for up to $6.4 million worth of total cap hits this season just by including Kapanen in a trade. Regardless of how much or little value he has to the other team in the equation, Kapanen is a glaring solution to making the salaries work, and possibly being addition through subtraction on the ice as well.

#3 Liking what they’ve got

This aspect will be the biggest sea-change for Hextall. It’s believable that he doesn’t want to trade away prospects and picks, and actually wants just the opposite in order to build up the team’s thin reserve of young talent. However, as written time and again, given where Pittsburgh is as a contender, prospects and picks that will take years to develop don’t make much sense in the most “win now” of all win now situations with Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang all 35 or older when the playoffs start.

#4 Who is the out of left field names to add?

Now we get to the biggest and best question of all. Who is this year’s Jeff Carter for the Pens? That name that no one sees coming, but is a fit.

Perhaps it’s a rental like Max Domi (CBJ) or Rickard Rakell (ANA) that is an unrestricted free agent this summer. But given reluctance to surrender assets for purely short-term adds, more of a “hockey trade” would fit the bill to accomplish team goals and vision.

Names from non-playoff teams like Pius Suter (DET), Mason Appleton (SEA), Artturi Lehkonen (MTL), Dominik Kubalik (CHI) and Dylan Strome (CHI) are all either under contract or team control as RFA’s for next season. That’s the type of player at least that should be on the radar that possibly fit a price and value add, without dipping into more expensive players in cost like Conor Garland (VAN) or Brock Boeser (VAN). And some really crazy rumors like Jesper Bratt (NJD) and Victor Olofsson (BUF) who may be available are worth well more than the Pens are even capable of offering, so we’ll leave that to the side.

Chicago is emerging as the team to keep an eye on at this deadline. They just promoted interim GM Kyle Davidson into the full role earlier this week and the word “rebuild” is being thrown around.

Brandon Hagel is the prize. He has 17 goals and 30 points this season, and yes that 21.3% shooting% screams bad news as far as regression. But he also shot 10% last year and this isn’t a player devoid of talent given his high primary assists numbers and the fact almost all of his production has been at even strength.

The best part of Hagel is his age at just 23, and his contract status at $1.5 million per year through 2023-24. Given what Tampa did with wise and fruitful adds of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow that gave a lot of value for two playoff runs, the addition of Hagel would be along those lines (and for the next three playoffs).

Even ignoring the sky high finishing, this is a player with a lot to add to a contender, as Frank Seravalli at Daily Faceoff wrote (emphasis added for point made below):

[Hagel] brings a different, Swiss Army Knife-type element. He plays on the first power play and second penalty kill units. He is a 200-foot player with scoring and passing ability. He wins battles along the wall and kills penalties. Hagel also plays bigger than his 6-foot frame might indicate. At his current production rate, he is trending almost exactly toward the 20-goal seasons that Coleman put up with the Devils prior to his trade. He is also probably the closest stylistic fit to Coleman

Hagel would also clock in as the youngest current full-time Penguin by over a year, so adding him in exchange for future assets would still be a boost to the young talent pool.

Now let’s mention a forward-looking thought that no one really wants to think or say. Go back above and read just the bold words in the description, and remember that Hagel is a right wing. Does that not sound EXACTLY like the picture-perfect ideal Sidney Crosby right wing if you could dream one up in some crazy create-a-player hockey lab? Hagel could become essentially Bryan Rust insurance (or a replacement) moving forward, and at a sweetheart of a contract at that.

But Hagel would be a tough pull in terms of trade cost. Seravalli also wrote:

At least four teams are known to have engaged in conversation on Hagel: Florida, Toronto, New Jersey and Calgary. The Flames likely moved on to [trade for Tyler] Toffoli. Since the Maple Leafs got their defenseman in Ilya Lyubushkin, could they circle back now on Hagel? It’s his contract and cost certainty that’s making teams drool. He is in first-round pick plus top prospect territory, which is understandable given the contract, his production and style of play. Provided that the Blackhawks’ high price is met, he’s a good bet to move

In that regard, the price for Pittsburgh may well prove to be too much for what Hextall is willing to pay. But at the same time, the benefit of a young, productive, cost-controlled player can’t be ignored.

If Hextall was comfortable offering Kapanen (who Chicago could hope to refresh or later ship out themselves) + the 2022 first round pick + a prospect like Sam Poulin or P.O Joseph, does that get the deal done? If the Pens have the appetite for such a move, it sounds like it might be close.

No one expected the Pens to trade for Jeff Carter last year — and based on all reports, no one is tying Brandon Hagel to Pittsburgh either. All that is really required is that the Pens re-calibrate their strategy from the small step of “we want to add young future talent to the organization” into “let’s add young current NHL talent to the team”.

That is not a big leap to make, or it shouldn’t be given how this season has unfolded. Hextall could be a stroke of brilliance if he adjusts and Hagel paid off the way Blake Coleman did in Tampa.