The 2017-18 season has not gone exactly as planned for the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They started the season by going 10-7-3 in their first 20 games including three losses by at least five goals in that stretch. They have been playing better of late with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games but have struggled at 5-on-5 where they have a minus-30 goal differential. By comparison, they had a plus-35 differential last season.
A reason for their struggles at 5-on-5 this season are the underperforming of key players. Last season, the Penguins had eight players score at least 10 goals at 5-on-5 while season there are only two. Sidney Crosby is the biggest culprit in the regression. Last season, he averaged .35 goals per game at 5-on-5 and is averaging .11 this season. The Penguins may have the best power play in the league, at 26.56 percent, and a top 10 penalty kill, but relying on an elite power play is not a sustainable path to winning.
General manager Jim Rutherford is known as one of the most aggressive GMs when it comes to making trades. In the three full seasons as Pittsburgh’s GM, he has made numerous trades that have helped to build their Cup teams. These include acquiring Patric Hornqvist from the Nashville Predators, trading for Nick Bonino, and most notably, acquiring Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also rebuilt the defense by trading for Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, and Justin Schultz in separate deals.
Whatever issues are present, Penguins fans should take solace in knowing that Rutherford will go to all ends to ensure the best team possible is taking the ice when the playoffs start. A problem they may have at this year’s trade deadline is the 30th ranked farm system and having just $674,906 in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.
Still Solving for 3C
Since Nick Bonino signed with Nashville last summer, Pittsburgh has been searching for his replacement as third line center. They attempted to remedy this by trading for Riley Sheahan earlier this season. He has not provided much offense with 20 points in 47 games with Pittsburgh.
They also moved left winger Jake Guentzel to center when Carter Rowney was injured and he played quite well in limited playing time. Regardless of how successful this experiment was, it was always going to be temporary given the chemistry and success Guentzel and Crosby have had playing together.
The solution is bolstering their center depth. Currently, Penguins centers not named Crosby or Evgeni Malkin have combined for 30 points. Pittsburgh’s last two playoff runs required them having depth behind Crosby and Malkin. The depth came in the forms of Bonino and Matt Cullen and they still almost lost to a Nashville team in the Stanley Cup Final that had Colton Sissons centering the top line. Luckily for Rutherford and the Penguins, there are plenty of centers available at this year’s deadline.
Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens
- 35 years old
- UFA with $1,774,194 cap hit remaining
Veteran Tomas Plekanec has played his entire career with the Canadiens but is a prime candidate to be moved. He has five goals and 20 points, all at even strength, in 55 games this season. He is a plus-three and is winning 51.9 percent of faceoffs. He is a solid penalty killer and averages over two shorthanded minutes per game. He is also not a defensive liability with a positive Corsi score while starting in the defensive zone nearly 60 percent of the time.
Plekanec would be a reliable addition to the Penguins and cost little in terms of assets as he will be a free agent at season’s end. The remaining cap hit could be problematic and would likely require either Montreal retaining some salary or Pittsburgh sending a contract in return.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators
- 25 years old
- Two years remaining with a $3.1 million AAV
JG Pageau should be a franchise player for the Senators. But, with them looking to rebuild in some manner given how poorly they have performed this season, no player is safe. Pageau is putting together a season similar to last year with seven goals and 18 points in 50 games. All but one of his points have come at even strength with the exception being a shorthanded tally. He is winning 52.6 percent of his faceoffs while receiving over 60 percent of his starts in the defensive zone.
Given his performance in the playoffs last season when he had 10 points in 19 games, Pageau has shown he isn’t shy of the biggest stages. His down season means he could be acquired at a discount price but would still be expensive due to the term left on his deal. His cap hit would also mean having to send an NHL contract back to get under the cap. Although acquiring Pageau would require a solid package of assets, having him under contract for two more years would give the Penguins stability at the position.
Mark Letestu, Edmonton Oilers
- 33 years old
- UFA with $532,258 cap hit remaining
Former Penguin Mark Letestu has been a solid veteran center with the Edmonton Oilers for the past three seasons. He set career highs in all offensive categories last season but is struggling this year like most Oilers. He has eight goals and 17 points in 53 games with only eight coming at even strength. He is strong on faceoffs, winning 52.8 percent of his draws and is a threat on the power play.
It is difficult to predict what he could bring to a new team but a change of scenery would certainly be beneficial. The upside to acquiring Letestu is that it would be a low risk trade, costing very little in assets. The downside is that he won’t bring much offensively but is a stabilizing presence in the bottom six.
Bolstering the Blue Line
Pittsburgh’s blue line has been somewhat of a revolving door, with eight different defensemen playing at least 20 games. This revolving door was partially caused by the departures of Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley in free agency. It also hasn’t helped that just two defensemen have positive plus/minuses with few proving to be reliable.
The top pair of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang has been a major reason for the defense’s struggles with each having a minus-14 rating. What they do not need is a defenseman who is great on the power play. They have their point men already and will be looking for minute eaters who are safe in all three zones.
Nick Holden, New York Rangers
- 30 years old
- UFA with $487,903 cap hit remaining
Defenseman Nick Holden has shown an ability to play a strong two-way game in the past but has just three goals and 10 points in 57 games this season. All of his points have come at 5-on-5 and he is a plus-four while starting in the defensive zone 62 percent of the time. He would be a cheap playoff rental who is trustworthy in his own zone, but given that the Rangers play in the same division as the Penguins, a trade could be difficult.
Patrik Nemeth, Colorado Avalanche
- 26 years old
- RFA with $279,435 cap hit remaining
Patrik Nemeth’s availability is largely based on where the Avalanche are in the standings come deadline day. If he is made available, he could be a nice piece for a contending team to pick up. He has three goals and 12 points in 41 games with all occurring at 5-on-5. He is also a plus-19 while starting in the defensive zone 61 percent of the time.
For the Penguins, he could be a solid third pair defenseman and provide stability on the blue line. His positive plus/minus indicates that he is a safe defenseman and doesn’t find himself on the ice for many goals against. His status as a restricted free agent would also make it easier for the team to retain him at season’s end if they chose to. However, this also means that he could be more costly than rental defensemen on the trade block.
Lacking at Left Wing
As mentioned, the Penguins have struggled with scoring this season. This has certainly been the case at left wing where Guentzel leads the position with 28 points. By comparison, right-winger Phil Kessel has more than double that point total. This year is a great year for a team seeking a productive left winger as both pending free agents and players with term are available.
Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres
- 26 years old
- UFA with $1,552,419 cap hit remaining
Evander Kane is all but certain to be moved at the deadline. He is having a nice season on a bad Sabres team and there is almost no chance he re-signs with them. He has 18 goals and 38 points in 56 games and can play in all situations with goals coming on both special teams and at 5-on-5. He also has a positive Corsi score, quite a feat for a team with just five regulars above 50 percent. His speed would work well on either of the Penguins top two lines.
Despite likely being just a playoff rental, acquiring Kane will not be cheap. The Sabres have indicated that they want a first round pick, a roster player, and a prospect, which would further strip the Penguins of future assets. There would always be the possibility of re-signing him but considering he is reaching free agency for the first time in his career, a new contract will not be cheap.
Michael Grabner, New York Rangers
- 30 years old
- UFA with $487,903 cap hit remaining
Michael Grabner could be the best available fit for the Penguins at the deadline. He is fast and has 23 goals in 55 games with all but one occurring at even strength. The remaining goal was scored shorthanded. He also has a plus-six turnover margin and is shooting 18.5 percent, generally an unsustainable rate but he is a career 13.1 percent shooter.
Because he is a free agent this offseason, he won’t be overly expensive. However, like Holden, Grabner plays for the Rangers, an in-division team. Perhaps a package containing both players could be the best way to pursue this deal.
Mike Hoffman, Ottawa Senators
- 28 years old
- Two years remaining with $5,187,500 AAV and a modified no-trade clause
Mike Hoffman’s name has been dangled much of the season and could be on the move by the deadline. He is a consistent 25 goal, 55 point producer but is having a slightly down season this year. He has 15 goals and 37 points in 54 games and is a minus-14. His shooting percentage is also down almost three percent and a positive regression would get his stats more in line with career norms.
Trading for Hoffman won’t be cheap with two years remaining on his deal. But having cost control with a player who could score 35 goals on a line with Crosby or Malkin may be worth it. This is another situation where the Penguins would have to send a contract back to be cap compliant.
Who Will Pittsburgh Land?
The Penguins have given up valuable assets each year they won the Stanley Cup. The result has been a stripped-down farm system and a limited pool of picks. They are left with just two elite trade pieces in Daniel Sprong and Tristan Jarry. One or both would be necessary for Pittsburgh to make a major deal but, with as much success as the Penguins have had, it only makes sense to continue to pursue winning with Crosby and Malkin in their primes.
I think it makes the most sense to go after a player with term left on his deal like Hoffman or Pageau. Both of these players would give the Penguins security while the team’s Cup window is still open. Both players will be expensive but it is worth it to pursue a third consecutive Cup and face the long-term consequences down the road.
Defensively, I believe a player like Nemeth makes the most sense. He could be a playoff rental but could also be re-signed this offseason as he is a restricted free agent. He is also safe and that is what the Penguins need most this season. There have been too many instances where their goaltenders have been left out to dry by a defensive breakdown. Acquiring a player who can solve that problem would be invaluable for the team.
Regardless of who they acquire, Penguins fans should take comfort in knowing that Rutherford will exhaust all options to strengthen the roster. This could mean the team that takes the ice when the playoffs start will look drastically different from the current one. Let me know in the comments what you think the Penguins should do at this year’s trade deadline.
*All stats came from Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick