By definition, “fantasy booking” means like it sounds — original, fun ideas that won’t be used but come from a place of hope and attempting to make things better.
Believe it or not (and for many it may be “or not”), I don’t even like delving into the world of the hypothetical and inventive areas of the mind that don’t exist in reality. There’s too much going on as it is to worry about theater of the mind that is detached from the actual world.
Except, right now there really isn’t anything going on deep into the bye week. So you’re here, I’m here, let’s roll up our sleeves and go on a journey, why don’t we? It’s not like there’s anything better to do at the moment. (That’s the spirit, eh?)
We all know that by any metric, Ron Hextall hasn’t been a very active in the trade market. But he has added NHL talent prior to both of the deadlines. In 2021 is was Jeff Carter and in 2022 is was Rickard Rakell. It’s a pretty good bet Hextall will try to do something before March 3rd’s trade deadline. It surely won’t be as bold or meaningful as what we will dream up today, but it’s always easier to throw trade chips around when it’s just the realm of the hypothetical. Is this a prediction? Hell no. Do you quibble with the values assigned or the exact specifics? Probably, but get your own fantasy, no one’s stopping you.
Right now, before we stray into playing Armchair GM, the Penguins have three major concerns. By escalating importance they are:
#3 - Tristan Jarry’s injury history and trying to augment the goalie position with a “1B” type of goalie talented enough to play in the playoffs if need be.
#2 - Brian Dumoulin’s drop off which has left the Penguins with only one good left defender who is used in a major role (Marcus Pettersson).
#1 - A complete disintegration of the planned third line, due chiefly to Jeff Carter’s drop off, Kasperi Kapanen’s lack of usage/confidence/all-around play
Of course, the world we live in when considering a tight salary cap, high trade cost acquisition around the market and limited valuable trade chips makes this very much not a perfect one for the Pens to fix all of these problems in a short amount of time. Addressing all these issues and making multiple upgrades across the board will remain the further flung of fantasies. Can’t knock anyone for dreaming, but it’s also probably worth admitting as well that there are legitimate limitations in play as well.
But, hey, sometimes making wholesale changes and having some fun is where it’s at. So let’s give it a whirl and try our best to see what happens.
Trade 1: Kasperi Kapanen to Edmonton for Jesse Puljujarvi
A classic “problem for a problem” trade. The oft-rumored trade of Puljujarvi looks imminent. In some ways, with a lack of finishing ability, Puljujarvi is like if Zach Aston-Reese was 6’4” and could skate like the wind. Puljujarvi hasn’t meshed with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it’s no guarantee he would work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
However, with Puljujarvi’s hard-working style and being good at forechecking and hounding down pucks — doing a lot of “little things” well, while failing to convert on the important things (i.e. the actual putting the puck in the net part). It might be worth a flyer to see if a change of scenery would help make things click and improve for him. The Pens only play Kapanen 11 minutes per game, there’s nothing much to lose.
Importantly, the salaries are pretty close ($3.2 million to $3.0m), which is very meaningful for two capped-out teams.
Trade 2: Teddy Blueger and a 2023 second round pick to San Jose for Alexander Barabanov
Blueger has struggled mightily this season, Barabanov has 24 assists and 31 points in 46 games this year with the Sharks. And he’s signed next year for a very reasonable $2.5 million cap hit, which could make him Jason Zucker insurance if that winger departs in free agency. The Pens need more skill up and down their lineup, Barabanov would offer that. The Sharks would be selling fairly high on Barabanov and stock-piling for the future as they look to build. It’s either trade him off now for a second round pick, or probably trade him off at next year’s deadline for at best a second round pick that is going to take 12 months longer to develop. Might as well strike while the iron’s hot. The salaries of the respective players ($2.2m to $2.5m) are a fit for Pittsburgh, especially with the modest savings made in Trade 1 above.
Trade 3: Brian Dumoulin, Filip Hallander, 2023 first round pick, 2024 third round pick to St. Louis for Ryan O’Reilly (50% retained) and Niko Mikkola (50% retained)
As Keith Jackson might say, “whoa, Nellie!” If the first two trades were somewhat sensible and possibly even practical, now I’m trying to knock your socks off with an outrageous move that likely is impossible. And even put it last to lull you in like this exercise wouldn’t contain a wild, big swing at improving. Here’s why.
When you’re a late stage contender like the Pens are now, first round draft picks were made to be traded. In the Sportsnet look at O’Reilly, St. Louis wasn’t fielding any potential first rounders. Ponying up that big chip should be enough to have St. Louis work with the Penguins to retain salary and absorb the bad contract of Dumoulin to make it happen. Especially with a kick in of a good prospect that’s near NHL level in Hallander and another pick for their troubles.
Also, from the cap perspective, either Danton Heinen would need to be tacked on this deal, or simply outright waived by the Penguins in order to remain salary cap compliant, but otherwise this deal would work - assuming STL agreed to use two of their retention slots on this. (It would only be for the rest of the season, and again - they get a first round pick, so why not?)
Mikkola has only played in the 14-16 minute per game range, the Penguins would either need to amp him up into a bigger role or give it to Joseph. Either one likely would provide more than Dumoulin has. Mikkola has tangled with Crosby during games before and with 96 hits in 50 games this season is one of the most physical defenders in the NHL today and adds some size and actual toughness to the Pens’ blueline.
Assuming all players returned to health and stayed there (ha!), here is what my Penguin lineup could look something like for the playoffs, created on the always fun Armchair GM function over at CapFriendly to double check me on the math. As mentioned, I dropped Heinen from the team. Drew O’Connor and Mark Friedman were also sent to Wilkes-Barre to make way for players who will eventually be off the IR.
Since it’s a true fantasy, I’m also not going to play Jeff Carter in my top 12, because, well, it’s my top 12. Carter’s full NMC+NTC prevents him from being traded or waived without his approval, so even in fantasy land, I’m not seeing a scenario where Pittsburgh can get rid of Carter this season. But, having to be on the roster doesn’t mean he has to be in the game lineups, either.
I like the idea of giving Puljujarvi a shot with Crosby to see if the styles would mesh, but if not, the old trusty move to put Bryan Rust back on the top line would be always be in play.
Since the Pens are still weak on the left side of their defense, it’s mostly a “big 3” concept for them. That means Letang, Petry and Pettersson are going to play the bulk of the minutes and important shifts. From there, the others can be sprinkled in as needed. It would be better to have four trusted and proven top-four defenders, but several top NHL teams in the recent past have followed this model (so popularized by Hedman-McDonagh-Sergachev down in Tampa) to great success.
A player like Dumoulin probably won’t be traded, there are real chemistry and off-ice value to consider. Dumoulin is the locker room DJ. He was named the top “glue guy” by his teammates in the yearly yearbook. He’s a beloved player. It’s easy to see why guys like that don’t get traded. But to get salary in, Pittsburgh is going to need to send salary out. Dumoulin is not performing on the ice, and though undoubtedly a key part of the team, what’s the chemistry to protect on a fourth or fifth place squad in their own division?
I wasn’t able to change or upgrade the goaltending, so the dangerous “hope” that Jarry can stay healthy and play well this post-season is the call.
Every year the Pens do well, they have a beast third line, and usually a great third line center performance. O’Reilly could be that. It’s dangerous to think about how high the 2023-first round pick could be — but just look at players like Joseph, Sam Poulin and Owen Pickering — recent first rounders in the Pens’ system, all drafted in the mid/late first. All took a long time to get going and make NHL impacts. Pittsburgh doesn’t have that long to wait with the clock ticking loudly on the core players. Even if it’s a short-term boost, it’s a badly needed one right now for their supporting cast.
Of all the ideas, it surely is the least practical or likely to actually happen in the real world is that the Pens under Ron Hextall would trade their first rounder (and for a rental with no further time on his contract past this season, no less). But as the Marian Hossa trade demonstrated, it’s not always a bad idea or value to do so. That move really helped Pittsburgh. Nothing sent to Atlanta made any impact at all, as far as the prospects/picks involved.
Sacrificing a chance of the long-distance future to address an immediate glaring need now is a fantasy booking lesson that the actual general manager might take away back in the real world. At this point, the Penguins look mostly stagnant and are a good but not great team. It would take bold action and a risk in order to change that. Crosby only is going to play at a 100-point pace for so long, the organization owes it to him to keep going all in while he is near the top of his game.