Exactly two weeks from today (Monday March 21st) is the NHL’s trade deadline. As we wrote last month, “no plans” might be the Penguins’ deadline plans and that notion has been recently reinforced.
“I like to get to know the team for a full season and then make a dramatic move,” Brian Burke wrote in his book.— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) March 7, 2022
Well one year in, with the trade deadline looming, could that move be coming?
Don’t count on it.
“We may well have a very quiet deadline.” https://t.co/G7LV3EJH4E
“We’re probably not going to be able to do much,” Burke told the Post-Gazette on Sunday. “We’re capped out. I can’t imagine we’re going to do something big or noisy at the deadline.”
That is not surprising and has been the way the current Burke/Ron Hextall management team has operated so far. Mostly observing, and mostly watching their team perform well.
Hextall hasn’t shared many of his plans, but a “big or noisy” move would seem far-flung for a team that has stated intentions of keeping high draft picks and attempting to build up a young talent pool right now that is very bare.
Circumstances have also swung to benefit not making a move. There’s no need to spend assets or cap space on another goalie with the way Casey DeSmith has rebounded in the last month. A team could always use depth defenders, but Pittsburgh has Mark Friedman and Pierre-Olivier Joseph in reserve as capable enough looking options if needed.
In a perfect world the team would be able to add a forward or two that could improve the depth and balance of their lines, but as luck would have it they may be able to do that without making a trade.
Mike Sullivan said today was a maintenance day for Evgeni Malkin, and Mike Matheson and Jason Zucker have started skating.— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 6, 2022
"Obviously the fact that they're on the ice is a next step for them, and that's encouraging from our standpoint."
Teddy Blueger is even further along then Zucker and Matheson are. Blueger has practicing regularly with the team in a contact jersey with added protection shielding his jaw.
With the nature of hockey, by the time these players return others may well be headed to the trainer’s room and injury list, which would be a blow. Evgeni Malkin was absent from practice on Sunday, perhaps just a day off for a veteran at a part of the schedule where they can give a bit of extra rest, but it never is ideal when Malkin isn’t 100%.
Zucker, in particular, could be the key to the stretch run. It certainly feels like Zucker’s two plus years with the Pens has been unfulfilling, even though he has also scored 21 goals and 22 assists in what totals to a little more than a full season (84 games) over three different NHL campaigns. A lot of that is the recency effect of Zucker’s struggle with finishing — he scored only four goals in 30 games this season before popping off a two-goal game prior to leaving the lineup to have surgery on his core.
That surgery was in late-January, nearly six weeks ago, and Zucker was declared out “week-to-week” at that time. He will require a bit more runway in his rehabilitation process to get back up to speed and able to return to games, but process is well underway.
When he does come back, Zucker will likely be plugged in next to Malkin, which on paper boosts the skill and ability of the second line that has struggled to gain traction. His return could also have a cascading effect to strengthen lower lines if it moves a winger like Danton Heinen down to play with Jeff Carter.
Speaking of struggling, another wild card continues to be what the team can count on or try to get out of Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen again talked about his difficult season and how he is attempting to get out of a slump that has mired his production for months now.
Kapanen: "I'm just going through a slump that I haven't really ever been through before, so I just got to push through it... Obviously, I want to produce and score goals and do anything I can help to the team win." pic.twitter.com/QQA2jIff0P— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 6, 2022
As also mentioned, Kapanen and his $3.2 million cap hit would be an obvious and helpful way to alleviate the Pens’ salary cap position for a future trade, if management wanted to go that route.
However at this point, at least publicly they are not at the point yet where they’re sharing a desire to feel the need to make an external move to boost the current team. That mindset could be subject to change, or perhaps be different behind closed doors.
With the trade deadline getting closer, the Pens will have to decide what course to take. It’s likely 95% of what they have on hand and what has gotten them this far will continue to be what they count on going into the stretch run and playoffs.
Burke and Hextall might not have a trade as a high priority, but with Blueger and eventually Matheson and Zucker on a path back to the lineup, the Pens should still be getting back some internal additions to the lineup that will prove helpful in the near future without swinging a deal.