The Pittsburgh Penguins returned from the All-Star Break and their bye week on Tuesday night with a huge — and extremely impressive — 3-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets. It is a great start to the week and the stretch run of the regular season as they continue to fight for a playoff spot.
Tuesday’s game also saw the debut of forward Jesse Puljujarvi, as well as the return to the lineup of Reilly Smith.
Let’s talk about both players and a few other random things.
Jesse Puljujarvi looked about as expected
I do not expect Puljujarvi to be a savior or major impact player, but I do love the addition and taking the chance on him. Even though he never became a star in Edmonton and was constantly the subject of media criticism, I mostly liked his game and the things he brought to the ice. He is one of those players that never really wows you, but when you look at the numbers his team always seems to do better when he is on the ice.
It took exactly one game in Pittsburgh for that to play out.
He made his debut on a line with Lars Eller and Rickard Rakell, and the results were encouraging. That trio not only was on the ice for the game’s only 5-on-5 goal via Kris Letang, but it also finished the night with the team’s best shot attempt differential (69.2 percent), its best expected goal share (87 percent) and its best scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance share (both 100 percent).
In classic Puljujarvi fashion, he helped contribute to a goal by making a little play on the shift that helped the Penguins gain possession but did not actually give him a point.
I love the idea of this line and want to see it get a little bit of a run here to see if it can work because it has a lot elements that should work together.
Eller is a strong defensive presence in the middle.
Puljujarvi is a possession-driver that can make little plays that keep the play moving.
Rakell is the offensive presence that possesses both playmaking and goal-scoring ability.
The Reilly Smith situation
This is starting to become a real problem. I don’t want to be too hard on him for Tuesday’s game because it was his first game back from injury in nearly a month, but the second line of Smith, Evgeni Malkin and Drew O’Connor was just not good. They were, by far, the Penguins’ least effective line of the night, and it was another scoreless night for Smith as he continued to make zero noticeable impact.
After Tuesday he is now scored just two goals in his past 31 games and has only nine total points in that stretch.
A player going through an extended scoring slump isn’t usually a big deal to me. It happens to everybody, and second-and third-tier players are going to have even more significant slumps than the first-tier superstars. Production is always inconsistent.
What should not be inconsistent is impact.
And your process.
And that is the thing that concerns me about Smith. He not only is not scoring, he is never noticeable no matter what line he is a part of or what role he is being used in. He is just simply non-existent.
I loved this trade when it happened because the price was right and it seemed to be a perfect replacement for what Jason Zucker provided a season ago. Through the first 10 games of the season it looked like that might be what would end up happening. He simply has not sustained it.
He is still owed $5 million against the salary cap next season and it might be a contract the Penguins need to think about moving sooner rather than later.
He doesn’t seem to be a fit here, and that salary cap space can be used much more effectively.
Just keep Jake Guentzel
The closer we get to the trade deadline the more I become convinced keeping Guentzel is the right move whether the Penguins can re-sign him or not.
He played in his 500th NHL game on Tuesday and he remains one of the best all-around wingers in the league, a natural goal-scorer and the best winger Sidney Crosby has ever had in the NHL. If you have any intention of making the playoffs — and the Penguins absolutely should — it is going to have to happen with Guentzel on the roster.
That line is consistently dominant, and I just do not see the long-term benefit of what a trade will bring given the short-term risk.
There is not a trade to be made over the next month that is going to significantly alter the Penguins’ long-term outlook or improve their future rebuild, and all it is going to do is hurt their chances for the playoffs this season and almost certainly anger your franchise icon that is set to enter the final year of his contract.
You do not start a rebuild with a late first round pick and mid-level prospect.
Even if you do lose him in free agency after the season you are not losing him for entirely nothing. You are creating significant salary cap space in exchange. Keep him. Try to re-sign him. Make the playoffs.