The Penguins have a lot of unknown variables ahead of them. While the status of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang loom very large, it shouldn’t be ignored that Bryan Rust has almost certainly priced himself out of Pittsburgh’s salary cap structure. The Pens really just can’t afford to pay wingers as much as Rust can command on the precipice of free agency, considering that he’s been at or near a point per game production rate over the last three seasons and will be hitting the open market.
While Rickard Rakell could (and should!) be an option to return, the trade deadline pickup is also heading towards unrestricted free agency. They call players like Rakell a “rental” for a reason; they tend to go to the market and drift away to play elsewhere after being picked up at the deadline.
That could leave the Pens having top-six wingers of the steady and amazing Jake Guentzel, the oft-injured Jason Zucker, and....well, maybe they bring back some combination of Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen and/or Kasperi Kapanen from the varying levels of their respective free agencies. It stands to reason that Pittsburgh could be much in the market for an additional scoring winger, whether that be trying to fit Rust or Rakell or looking elsewhere to bolster the talent level.
Teams with cap space need to pounce and leverage good players away from teams without cap space. This is new territory for Pittsburgh, who has never had much cap space at all. They have almost $29 million to work with now (though re-signing or replacing Malkin and Letang will eat into that) but that means that the Pens could finally be the team to get a “Devon Toews for two second round picks” type trade from a cap-crunch team.
One of this year’s best target for just that type of scenario is Minnesota winger Kevin Fiala. As our sister SBN blog Hockey Wilderness reluctantly acknowledged, “it seems more and more likely that Kevin Fiala will not be on [the Minnesota] roster at the start of next season and he will be enjoying the sport of hockey somewhere else for some other team and some other fan base”.
Fiala is approaching restricted free agency, and is one year away from hitting the open market of UFA territory. He really hit his stride in 2021-22 with the Wild, with career-highs in goals (33), assists (52) and points (85). Fiala is also young, with a birthday to turn 26 over the summer. By comparison, Pittsburgh only had one regular forward in their lineup younger than Fiala in 2021-22 (Kapanen).
As HW pointed out, a similar trade for Fiala could be like the one that sent Sam Reinhart from Buffalo to Florida last summer. Florida surrendered a future first round pick plus a very good goalie prospect (Devon Levi) to get the deal done. Another fairly similar trade cited by HW was where Montreal sent winger Artturi Lehkonen (a RFA this summer) to Colorado for a second round pick and a very good defensive prospect in Justin Barron going back to the Habs.
If the off-season trade value for Fiala is anywhere near similar to Reinhart or Lehkonen’s respective trade, the Pens should be all over that to inquire with Minnesota about swinging a deal.
But wait, you might ask yourself, why can Pittsburgh be involved with getting Fiala and probably paying him a lot when they apparently can’t be in the running to afford Rust? It’s a good question to ask. An important distinction is that Fiala is four years younger than Rust and his restricted status this summer stands out too compared to Rust skating to a big payday right now.
And while everyone loves what Rust brings to the table — and for good measure — Rust has played 70+ games in a season just one time in his career and has a single-season point high of 58. Fiala just put up 85, and could be primed to stay at that level for years to come.
Minnesota is in a crunch and needs young, cheap NHL talent. They already have a logjam on defense, so a prospect like Pierre-Olivier Joseph probably doesn’t mean that much when taking into account their organizational depth chart. Pittsburgh may not be a terrific trading partner, but they do have Sam Poulin and his pedigree plus impressive second-half of the AHL season. And a first round pick (#21 overall) in 2022. And other prospects close to NHL action like Drew O’Connor, Radim Zohorna and Filip Hallander.
Any and all of them should be on the table to offer to the Wild some NHL-ready cheap, young forward options with upside. Bill Guerin has been out of the Pittsburgh organization since the summer of 2019, but likely could get very good information from his relationships if he needed it in and out of the organization (like Jim Rutherford or Patrik Allvin) about these players to fill in any gaps that Minnesota’s pro scouting might have.
If the Pens find that the price for Rust and Rakell might be outside of their level, or that they just want to get younger and augment the lineup with a huge scoring winger, a situation like Fiala and the Wild is certainly worth looking into.
Would a package of Poulin and the 2022 first rounder and maybe even one of O’Connor/Zohorna/Hallander be enough for Guerin to pull the trigger? Maybe, maybe not.
It’s tough to call a trade, but on the surface this would accomplish objectives for Minnesota to get cost-efficient young talent in the door that could contribute as soon as next season (Poulin) to go along with a first round pick for the future. And then the Pens could turn around and allocate some of their extensive cap space to secure Fiala with a long-term contract, taking advantage of him only being a restricted free agent this year.
It’s no secret that teams that are still alive in playoffs now like Colorado (with the aforementioned Toews and Lehkonen) and Florida (Reinhart) and Carolina (Brady Skjei, Jesper Kotkaniemi, Teuvo Teravanien) have weaponized the use of available cap space to add young NHL talent to boost their team for good value. As of the moment anyways, Pittsburgh does have that kind of space to try and exploit for a quick boost to their current team.
The fit might not look absolutely perfect at this moment, but a lot can happen when an organization has salary cap space. Bringing in elite, young game-breaking talent is never a bad idea if it can be pulled off.
The Pens would do well this off-season in whatever they do to look outside of the box and try to exploit the advantages they have to build the best team around Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. It might not be Kevin Fiala, but then again with enough aggressive action for how Pittsburgh wants to shape their team, it just might be an avenue worth going down.