The NHL trade deadline is just a few weeks away and it is starting to become clear that, for as good as the Pittsburgh Penguins have been so far this season, they could use a little extra help in one or two areas.
Maybe you are still concerned about goalie depth. You can never have enough defensemen. Even with a Jason Zucker return on the horizon (and he will help!) they could probably use another winger on the second line.
If Jim Rutherford were still running the show you know he would be cooking up something outrageous, like finding a way to fit Filip Forsberg’s cap hit in or trying to find a third team to funnel Claude Giroux through. It would be amazing. Whatever flaws Rutherford had in his last few years in Pittsburgh, and for whatever questionable moves he made, the one thing that he fully understood and embraced was that the Penguins had no choice but to be all in in on that particular season.
Their farm system is thin. Their core players are still high level stars that can be a championship foundation, but are getting closer to retirement or potential free agency. You only get so many seasons with those players and you owe it to them and everybody else in the organization to do everything in your power to put the best possible team on the ice to give yourself the best possible chance to win.
Earlier this season I wrote about all of this and how the Penguins should absolutely be willing to trade their first-round pick without even giving it a second thought. I am not only going to repeat that here, but also add any prospect currently in the system if the right deal comes along.
Do not trade them for the sake of trading them. That is not what I am saying. I am saying if you can get a difference-maker in your lineup, and that is the cost it takes to acquire them, then there should be no hesitation from a front office perspective. I know there is a belief that the Penguins have to stop trading future assets and plan for future seasons, but not only is this not that time, but there is not a single asset in the farm system or draft pick cupboard that is likely to significantly impact a future team.
Sure, there might be some NHL players in there. Maybe Samuel Poulin or Nathan Legare puts it together in the NHL. Maybe Pierre-Olivier Joseph becomes a strong NHL defender (though, the Penguins current front office does not seem particularly high on him). Maybe that first-round pick turns into another Kasperi Kapanen, which is about the expected ceiling for a pick in the mid-late 20s. But those players are not difference-makers or will make an ounce of difference when the Penguins eventually have to rebuild their roster. We are not talking about trading the next Sidney Crosby or Kris Letang here. There is no player in the farm system, and very likely no player available to the Penguins in the 2022 NHL draft, that is going to be a franchise player in the next decade.
This is worth talking about because on Monday the Athletic’s Josh Yohe wrote about how the Penguins should be aggressive at the trade deadline (he is right!!), but that it is Ron Hextall’s preference to not trade the first-round pick or Poulin or Legare. Now, that being your “preference” and something that he actually does are two very different things. It is probably every team’s preference to make a trade without actually giving up a first-round draft pick or your top prospect, but sometimes you have to do that. Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois basically said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to trading another first-round pick or a top prospect if it means a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Lightning are a pretty good comparison to the Penguins here because they, too, have a thin farm system and have made a habit out of trading first-round picks in recent years.
Ron Hextall should have that same mindset.
The question is whether or not he will. So far he has not been all that active in trades since being named the Penguins’ general manager, dealing two picks for Jeff Carter at the deadline a year ago and trading Jared McCann this past offseason ahead of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. During his time as the Philadelphia Flyers general manager one of the biggest criticisms of Hextall is that he was too patient and not active enough. It got to the point that when the Flyers made the change their management literally said they were looking for a general manager that “had a bias for action.” He was patient, methodical, more focussed on building long-term than anything else.
These Penguins and those Flyers are in very different places, though, and it will be interesting to see how his approach changes or plays out over the next couple of weeks. If there is no reasonable trade to be made, or no player that you think can make a difference for you, then so be it. It happens. But if there is a trade to be made that can significantly increases your chances of winning the Stanley Cup then you have to make that deal. No prospect in the organization and no draft pick should prevent them from making such a hypothetical trade.