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The Penguins need to improve lower line decision making

The Penguins hit on the big pieces, but need to be wise about rounding out the rest of the lineup

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at San Jose Sharks Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall hit a home run when it came to building the Penguins’ second line. He re-signed Rickard Rakell and Evgeni Malkin to secure the top of the lineup. Even if maybe three or four years from now that might not look so rosy, for now that’s the basis of two excellent scoring forwards that will provide what Pittsburgh needs next season.

After the initial burst of free agency has settled, it’s clear that Pittsburgh needs to revamp and round out their bottom-six forward group as the missing pieces of the puzzle for the roster next season. The defense is over-stacked with names, one of whom could be traded to boost the forwards. As of now the Pens have Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger to play down the middle and are fine in that regard, but have work to do on the wings where they only have Brock McGinn and younger, unestablished players under contract. And, for some reason, Josh Archibald.

Archibald’s 2021-22 was almost a lost year. Without trying to editorialize — though it’s a touchy issue everyone has an opinion on, it’s not really necessary to any and every share unrelated opinion in every forum — it’s widely known he was one of the few NHL players who wasn’t vaccinated for COVID. Archibald caught the virus in summer 2021 and was diagnosed with the heart condition myocarditis in October. Archibald was out until March 2022 as a result. He did play eight games for Edmonton down the stretch in the regular season, scoring one point (an assist). Archibald appeared in 13 of the Oilers’ 16 playoff games, again scoring no goals and adding one assist.

Again, regardless of any stance or emotional opinions off the ice attitudes/decisions, on the ice Archibald will turn 30 before the season starts. That’s hardly a young player in a young player’s role, and Archibald has always been a replacement caliber player anyways. That’s not a wise move to allot $900,000 on a one-way contract. That cap number means the Pens could bury him in the minors, but it’s also not practical to pay a forward $900k to ride the buses. And the general manager probably wouldn’t have called the guy a “Pittsburgh Penguin” if they didn’t intend to have him in Pittsburgh in some capacity, this was clearly a decision to boost the depth of the NHL team and fill an energy/PK role.

Rounding out the roster for such roles are key decisions for a team’s overall strength and quality. There were rumors that defensive specialist Johan Larsson was close to signing with Pittsburgh, but it’s not yet been finalized or announced. Larsson would have been a better use of the space than Archibald. And there’s another player that sticks out as a glaringly better example of free agent selection in the form of Rudolfs Balcers.

Balcers can do all the things that Archibald does — throw hits, play with energy, kill penalties — but is also almost five years younger and produces more as well offensively while being better in transition to get the puck headed up the ice. Balcers signed for league minimum, despite putting up an almost identical stat-line (11G+12A in 61 games) to Brock McGinn (12G+10A in 64 games). McGinn was the Pens’ “big” free agent pickup of 2021. and costs the Penguins $2.0 million more to provide than Balcers will count against the Panthers this season.

As JFresh said, it’s the “classic Panthers pickup” for a team that has given opportunity to players like Mason Marchment and Carter Verhaeghe out of seemingly nowhere and benefited from it immensely.

Balcers might not have the pure skill or offensive upside to be quite on the level of those success stories, but he has the tools be the type of player who contributes a lot to a winning team. Josh Archibald is not going to be such a player. Brock McGinn can be, but at a premium price.

There’s a reason that Florida gets the most from players like Marchment or Verhaeghe (or also getting Anthony Duclair’s career to the next level, in a similar mold). That’s because those players are young and bring a lot to the table in the first place with high upsides. When a team signs a player like Balcers, the door is wide open for contributions well above pay grade. When a team signs a 30-year old Archibald or McGinn at $2.75m, there is no such avenue available.

It might not be the total difference between winning and losing in the playoffs, however all the pieces add up when it comes to roster construction. Lower lines filled with players like Balcers will perform a lot better than lower lines that employ players like Archibald.

It’s not always as simple or as accurate as “the Pens should have just given Archibald’s money to Balcers” and called it a day, because other factors could have been in play. As a free agent, Balcers might have picked joining the President Trophy winning Panthers on his own. It would be a bit much to say such a move should have happened, when other issues could have been out of the team’s control in this specific anecdotal instance.

The over-arching point (no pun intended) is one about theory and philosophy of what to look for and pay when it comes to rounding out a team. Successful teams should be looking to stock up on players like Balcers or Johan Larsson for their bottom-six forwards, not lesser ones like Archibald.

Ron Hextall stuck the landing and got the difficult part right when he retained players like Malkin, Rakell, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust for very team-favorable cap hits. Those guys are a part of the main core of players that will have to drive the bus. Championship-caliber teams have contributors down the lineup that can pitch in and help. It’s critical that the Penguins create the best lineup they can with the other decisions almost as much as at the top of the lineup.

Missing out on players like Balcers (and maybe Larsson) are opportunity cost losses. Pittsburgh still has a chance for redemption when it comes to the impending trade of a defenseman out to bring in a useful forward. Whether or not they accomplish that will go a long way to determining how strong their group can be next season.