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NHL trade deadline: Penguins face painful questions about their future

The Penguins need to give their star players more help, but at what cost?

Just start with the basics, and things were already bad for the Pittsburgh Penguins this week.

They didn’t just lose to the Edmonton Oilers, they were shellacked by a score of 7-2. This slump isn’t just a four-game losing streak, it’s a skid where the Penguins haven’t even reached overtime, meaning they collected zero of a possible eight standings points.

Add some context and things get even worse. Fans were mad enough to call for GM Ron Hextall’s head. Even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin drew some grumbles.

As the 2023 NHL trade deadline approaches, the Penguins face painful questions about their future, both in the short and long term. Considering the team’s haunting weaknesses and the daunting challenges of facing a team like the Boston Bruins or Carolina Hurricanes in the first round, it’s tough to imagine a long playoff run. Of course, there’s no guarantee the Penguins make the playoffs at all.

So, what should they do? Let’s explore the ways the Penguins might unpack this puzzle.

Penguins GM Ron Hextall has quite the predicament on his hands. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Penguins GM Ron Hextall has quite the predicament on his hands. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Path 1: Hextall tries to save his job with a desperate trade deadline

For all of Hextall’s stumbles as a GM (now with the Penguins, before with the Flyers), he deserves credit for how he handled questions about those chants.

“It doesn't impact me at all,” Hextall said. “I understand the fans' frustration. We have high expectations as well, and we haven't met them. So, I totally get it.”

Crucially, Hextall claimed it wouldn’t affect his decisions, and he also noted that the Penguins are “not looking to spend big assets on rentals.” He also noted the Penguins are “jammed up” when it comes to the salary cap, although he did get some unexpected relief on Saturday when the St. Louis Blues claimed forward Kasperi Kapanen and his $3.2 million cap hit for this season and next.

These are all important considerations because the Penguins aren’t a rental away from joining the East’s elite. Hextall himself noted well-founded criticisms of the team’s bottom-six forwards, while goaltending is an issue. That might imply the Penguins are just a few tweaks from joining the East’s contenders. Instead, they’re a team that creates plenty of offense but also gives up a lot of chances. Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM chart is one way to see that all in a single image. Or you could also just lean on something like their minus-3 goal differential and compare that to the mighty Bruins (plus-93) and Hurricanes (plus-48).

To be clear: the Penguins aren’t a terrible team. Instead, they’re flawed, and stand little chance against a top team.

Normally, those thoughts would actually square nicely with a common criticism of Hextall: that he’s often patient to the point of seemingly doing nothing. Doing nothing would be better than a reckless grasp at relevance. Yet, with Hextall’s job possibly not being safe, there’s the risk of chasing quick fixes.

Ideally, the Penguins would take the playoffs out of their grand plans and focus instead on the short and long-term future. That could mean waiting until the offseason entirely, but the Penguins could also get creative at the trade deadline.

Path 2: Echo the Capitals and be short-term sellers

In recent trade deadline history, we’ve seen consistent contenders sometimes take a step back. In certain cases, that step back might only last for a single season.

From the looks of things, the Capitals are mainly doing a short “retool” by trading Dmitry Orlov and possibly other pending free agents. From Jason Zucker to Brian Dumoulin, the Penguins could move some expiring contracts for picks and/or prospects.

That plays into a potential bright side. While the Penguins are indeed “jammed up” right now, they could find themselves with much more flexibility in the offseason. Zucker and Dumoulin combine for $9.6 million in salary cap commitments, and Tristan Jarry carries another $3.5 million.

Overall, the Penguins aren’t structured to blow things up entirely.

Crosby’s under contract through 2024-25, Malkin for one more year after that, and Kris Letang stands alongside Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell as players with even more term on their deals. Right now, the Penguins’ top players are holding up remarkably well, making those commitments less scary — at least in the moment. But it’s abundantly clear they need more help.

Yet, instead of losing Zucker and Dumoulin for nothing, the Penguins could land some picks. With the bottom falling out on Dumoulin’s game and Zucker only really being healthy enough to produce this season, it’s also fair to argue that the Penguins wouldn’t necessarily totally sabotage their playoff chances by selling them off. Pittsburgh should merely recall the Douglas Murray trade with San Jose in 2013. The Penguins sent the Sharks a second-rounder (which became Tyler Bertuzzi) for a largely ineffective Murray, and the Sharks won a playoff round anyway.

Path 3: Parlay trade assets into an impact addition

It’s probably not wise to pencil in the Blues as the new frontrunners for Timo Meier, but such creativity (at least by the stodgy standards of the NHL) should inspire a team like the Penguins.

One bright side of Hextall’s reign is that the Penguins still currently have their first- and second-round picks for the foreseeable future. The safer route would be to use those picks to replenish a dry pool of prospects. While that’s fine, the Penguins could also add more picks and prospects at the NHL trade deadline, to the point where they might be a more viable candidate for a splashier addition like Meier or Jakob Chychrun, who coach Mike Sullivan reportedly wants Hextall to pursue.

With Hextall still seeming to be in idle mode, maybe the Penguins miss out on Meier and Chychrun, although there’s at least an outside chance the Coyotes wait until the offseason for the trade package they crave. They could still line up the assets they need to make an offseason trade for an impact addition. And, harsh or not, many would argue that they’d be better off waiting until a different GM is in place to make a bold move.

A tough spot, but some hope

For the rest of the 2022-23 season, the Penguins wrestle with lowered expectations. In the grand scheme of things, time could also catch up on Crosby, Malkin and others very soon.

But to their immense credit, the Penguins’ best players are still hovering in that All-Star range, and no one’s carrying a bigger cap hit than numerology-obsessed Crosby’s $8.7 million. This isn’t a team saddled with eight-digit nightmare deals. Instead, they’ve failed to take advantage of those salary cap advantages.

Overall, Hextall’s failures have been around the fringes. In isolation, investing in one of Jeff Carter, Brock McGinn, or Jan Rutta didn’t sink the Penguins’ fortunes alone. Those mistakes start to add up, though. Combined, those three cost close to Crosby’s $8.7M cap hit, which isn’t far off from Meier’s reported asking price.

Going forward, the Penguins might get out of this mess by picking their shot, rather than trying to fire that cross-seam pass through traffic. Doing so might mean swallowing some pride during the trade deadline, and Hextall valuing long-term vision above his own job security.

If he takes such a sober approach and the Penguins actually get on track, fans should instead chant “Thank You, Hextall.”