New Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas is staring at one of the biggest decisions in his young tenure with the team, and it is rapidly approaching. The decision will focus on what he decides to do with star winger Jake Guentzel, both before the NHL trade deadline and going into the offseason.
Will he trade him?
Will he re-sign him?
Will he be able to re-sign him?
Given the current state of contract negotiations — his agent recently told ESPN negotiations could get heated in the future — the first big decision will be whether or not Dubas and the Penguins want to hold onto Guentzel beyond the March 8 trade deadline. Especially given the Penguins’ current status as a bubble playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Guentzel is in the final year of his current contract and is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. It is probably his last chance to cash in with a monster contract, and the Penguins will have to wrestle with the question of whether or not it will be worth paying him that money at his age. Especially given where the team is among the NHL’s contenders.
On one hand, the Penguins would seem to be a step below some of the best teams in the league and are not really one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league this season. They also are not really in a position where they would want to lose Guentzel for nothing, and that is especially the case if they fall out of playoff contention. He is one of the few tradable assets on the roster that would actually bring them back a significant piece or two for their future.
The going rate for a top-line player in his final year would probably be something centered around a first-round pick and a decent prospect. Given how thin the Penguins’ farm system is, and how they are likely to not have a first-round pick this offseason (their pick is top-10 protected and would go to San Jose as part of the Erik Karlsson trade if it falls outside of the top-10) that could be tempting. Especially if the Penguins are on the outside of the playoff field with little chance of getting back into it.
But that scenario is a big if.
The Penguins have actually been playing really good hockey over the past month-and-a-half. They are one of the best 5-on-5 teams in all of hockey by every objective measure, they have rock-solid goaltending, the Eastern Conference looks to be completely wide open for the taking, and if the Penguins can ever get their power play figured out things would dramatically change regarding their short-term outlook.
They have also played their way back into playoff contention.
With Monday’s 3-0 win over the Seattle Kraken the Penguins are back into a Wild Card spot based on points percentage (.571) and have the league’s ninth best points percentage (.625) since Dec. 1 and the sixth-best (.719) since Dec. 12. They are getting back into it. Legitimately back into it.
As long as that is the case, and as long as they keep playing the way they have been and are in a playoff position, it is really hard to envision a scenario in which the Penguins actually trade Guentzel this season.
First, that would go against everything they have done over the past couple of years, and even this past offseason, when it comes to building their roster with both a short-term and long-term outlook. They have shown absolutely zero interest in looking down the line and seem fully committed to trying to get back to the playoffs this season and competing. For better or worse, they are all in on this season and as long as they have a realistic chance to compete I just do not see a reason why that would change.
Would the possibility of a late first-round pick and a prospect really make them change course if they still have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs? It just seems hard to believe given the way they added a $10 million player like Erik Karlsson this offseason and committed to Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang the offseason before that.
Maybe that is not the smartest move regarding the future.
But it is also true that there probably is not a trade out there that meaningfully impacts their future rebuild unless somebody truly makes an outrageous offer.
Which brings us to the second point. Would the Penguins really do that to Sidney Crosby given the season he is having alongside Guentzel?
If the goal is to make the playoffs — and everything indicates that is still the goal — and you have a realistic chance to make it, I am not sure how they take Crosby’s top wing-man away from him. Those two are one of the biggest things still driving the bus for a chance at the playoffs, and it seems really hard to imagine the Penguins sacrificing what is still a great season from Crosby to land a late-first-round pick.
Again, maybe that is not the best way to handle it, or the best reason for handing it that way, but it just seems more realistic than the idea of Guentzel wearing another uniform this season when the Penguins still have a chance to do something.
That also does not even get into the possibility of the Penguins actually re-signing Guentzel beyond this season, which is probably not an outcome that is out of the question, either.
I understand the argument for trading Guentzel. I can see why it would be considered as an option. I just do not see it actually happening if they are in a playoff position.