We have already spent countless hours over the past few weeks dissecting the Pittsburgh Penguins roster, obsessing over its flaws, and looking at hypothetical trade options to help them out.
They need a trade.
Maybe more than one trade.
But the past week has only added some urgency to that thanks to some of the moves made around them in the Metropolitan Division, where two of their prime competitors have already made significant changes to their roster.
Just after the All-Star game we saw the New York Islanders add Bo Horvat, one of the league’s top goal-scorers, and then sign him to a brand new long-term contract extension.
On Thursday, the New York Rangers made a huge move of their own to get Vladimir Tarasenko from the St. Louis Blues to put him on their top line alongside Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.
That means the teams sandwiched around the Penguins, both above them and below them in the standings, are making moves to get better.
The Islanders are a concern because they are one of the teams no the Penguins’ heels when it comes to getting into playoff position. After New York’s 6-5 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, the Penguins and Islanders remained tied in the standings with 59 points, but Pittsburgh does have a whopping FIVE games in hand. That gives them a sizable advantage in terms of points percentage. But there are also a handful of head-to-head games remaining, including next Friday in New York.
The Islanders have their flaws, but they still have an outstanding goalie and Horvat is the exact type of player they needed.
The Rangers are a concern because they are the team the Penguins have the best chance of catching to get out of a wild card spot and back into the top-three of the Metropolitan Division, and thus avoiding a potential first-round matchup against Carolina or Boston. Neither of which would be any fun. New Jersey might be an outstanding team, but Carolina has just simply looked better than the Penguins in their head-to-head meetings (and now has the salary cap space to make a MAJOR trade deadline splash), while Boston is cooking along like a well-oiled machine. Those are not the matchups you want in the first round.
The Penguins were already facing some obstacles before the teams around them started adding. Now that the pre-trade deadline arms race is on, the pressure is going to keep mounting on Hextall and the Penguins to do something.
The obvious need remains a third-line center to get Jeff Carter out of that spot.
The likely centers on the move include the big-name guys like Ryan O’Reilly and Jonathan Toews, as well as the second-tier of centers like Max Domi, Sean Monahan (if he ever gets back on the ice), Ivan Barbashev, or former Penguin Oskar Sundqvist.
O’Reilly and Toews have the major red flags of salary and diminishing skills, so I am not sure how much I would be willing to pay for any of them, or if they would even be a big enough upgrade at this point. O’Reilly is having an especially tough year and I am just not sure what he has left.
Domi will bring a lot more offense, but he is a complete zero defensively and may not really be a net-gain.
The other option is the ultra aggressive option that remains somebody like Timo Meier in San Jose, and I will again point out there is a path to making this happen.
His qualifying offer and status as a pending restricted free agent is going to bring down the price tag a little, and the math works out that the Penguins could afford him next season with Jason Zucker and Brian Dumoulin coming off the books. You need to create a little more space this season, but that can be done if you have the aggressiveness and creativity to try it.
Going after Meier would also take a potential trade target away from Carolina, who will almost certainly be interested in him.
Whatever direction they go (a modest third-line upgrade or a blockbuster impact player) the Penguins are on the playoff bubble and already had needs for upgrades, and now a bunch of teams around them are making moves to get better. That only tightens the race. The Penguins made it clear they were all-in on this season when they brought back the core and anything less than another playoff appearance would be a total failure. Even with their flaws they still have top-line talent and have won some really scrappy games this year, and now they just need some help to get a little closer. That first-round pick and the prospects already in the system are not changing the future in any meaningful way. Try to cash them in now while you can.