After months of observing, note taking and careful consideration, Penguins general manager Ron Hextall sprung into action just before the NHL’s trade deadline.
Hextall’s work required him to add something to a Penguin team near the top of the division, but lacking a little scoring sizzle outside of their typical front-line players. However, he also had very little salary cap space to work with, and only limited assets to offer up. The best asset, a future first round pick, is believed to off the trade table in a self-imposed way to help boost the organization’s youth.
The answer came in what Hextall hopes will be the perfect fit and add to his playoff bound team, in the form of Anaheim forward Rickard Rakell.
Hextall: "You got the cap, you got the assets that you're giving up, you got the fit on your team. And that's why it's hard. We weren't just going to add a player, the player had to fit into our group."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 21, 2022
Enter: Rickard Rakell
More from @PensInsideScoop: https://t.co/2SYJlePA4v pic.twitter.com/vEFP755bK3
“We like his skill set,” Hextall said. “He plays with speed; he can play a fast game. So we feel like he’s going to fit in real good with our group here.”
There’s good reason for Hextall to feel that way. Rakell has flourished with skill centers, including the talented young Trevor Zegras this season. Rakell will likely swap the “young calf” for an “old bull” in Evgeni Malkin, so to say, but that should be a great fit based on styles.
Rakell excels in transition, using his speed on the rush to generate offense. That meshes well with the game Malkin thrives on. Since Malkin has returned from knee surgery in January, he has played games with no less than seven different wingers: Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen, Evan Rodrigues, Jeff Carter, Brock McGinn, Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust. Many of the experiments haven’t yielded great results. Rakell provides the coaching staff with another option.
“It gives Sully some good options on the wings, and also in the middle,” Hextall said.
While Rakell played center early in his NHL days, he has found his most successful seasons as a goal scoring winger from the 2016-17 to 2017-18 season where he scored 67 total goals in 148 games.
Upgraded skill and adding a player with that type of finishing ability was too much for the Pens to pass up in a late-developing deal that Hextall mentioned he was unsure would get done until this afternoon. As always, to get something a team has to give something. For a management team that has continually talked about enjoying the chemistry and mix of players around, it did seem to genuinely pain Hextall talking about having to ship out both Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon.
“If we could have kept the two players that we moved, we would have loved to. But in a cap world, things have to change,” Hextall said. “Then obviously a second-round pick and Calle Clang, Anaheim got a good young goalie there. It’s one of the deeper parts of the organization, so we felt like we could afford to give it up.”
The Pens still have Joel Blomqvist, considered a slightly better goalie prospect than Clang, and under Hextall’s watched have signed a pair of highly touted amateur goalies in Filip Lindberg and Taylor Gauthier. The pipeline of young goalie talent can certainly survive the loss of Clang, who is a talented prospect in his own right.
But a mid-level goalie prospect and a second round pick are a small price to pay towards adding a scoring level NHL forward for a stretch run and playoff chase. Credit to Hextall for finding that and at a price that made sense all the way around.
“When you can add a player with Rickard’s resume, put him with our players - we feel like we’re a better team right now that we were earlier this morning,” Hextall said.
For a contender, that’s the right way to approach the trade deadline. Even if it took a cautious path and the last minute to get there.