It’s been two months since the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and general manager Jim Rutherford has not hesitated to begin making the changes he promised this offseason.
Some of the moves have been well received, like a near-complete overhaul of the coaching staff, while others have been questioned by much of the Penguins’ fan base, like the trading of the first-round pick and a top prospect for Kasperi Kapanen and miscellaneous pieces.
The most recent move that left many people scratching their heads was a trade that sent fan-favorite Patric Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers for defenseman Mike Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour. While critics have gotten out the proverbial pitchforks and began to seriously question Rutherford’s managerial ability, this move opens a lot of doors to be a great deal for the team.
An Aging Hornqvist
Hornqvist may have been one of the most popular Penguins, and there is no denying that his contributions to the team will never be forgotten, but at the age of 33 and a history of concussions, his game is bound to take a step back. The way the Penguins are being built for the upcoming season, his position in the lineup was becoming a big question mark. He doesn’t fit the mold of “younger and faster” and was most likely going to be pushed off of the power-play units.
While never the fastest skater, Hornqvist played with grit and knew how to get under an opponent’s skin. His net-front presence will be missed and his style of play will be hard to replace, but not impossible. Sam Lafferty and Brandon Tanev are a pair that can be molded into Hornqvist’s likeness. They both play hard, fast, and aren’t afraid of going to the dirty areas of the ice.
It is without question how important Hornqvist was to the success of the Penguins over the last six seasons, between him scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in 2017, the fastest hat trick in team history in 2018, and putting up 22 goals in 66 playoff games. Six years, two Cups, and countless memories, his contributions will live on forever in Pittsburgh. And his branch of a massive trade tree lives on with a pair of new faces in Pittsburgh.
Whether there is bad blood between Hornqvist and the Penguins’ organization over the trade is not known, but that didn’t stop Pittsburgh media from jumping on a photo of his black and gold equipment “thrown” in his driveway.
While many fans brushed this off as a hockey player simply airing out and drying his equipment after an on-ice workout, there is no official word from Hornqvist on why his pads were neatly laid out in his driveway like many hockey players do across the globe.
What Matheson Does to the Lineup
Bringing in 26-year-old Matheson makes the team younger, faster, and adds another skilled puck mover to the blue line. Rutherford gave the new defender high praise in a radio interview with Mark Madden. He believes that Matheson will be the fastest defenseman in the Penguins’ lineup, and that is no small accomplishment with Kris Letang and John Marino in the same core. With the Panthers, Matheson picked up 74 points in the last three seasons, including 26 goals; he doesn’t shy away from being a point-collecting blueliner.
However, Matheson’s addition does create a log jam at the left defensive position. Something will have to give — either Rutherford is forced to make another move or someone will have to play their opposite side. The odd-man out in that situation is Jack Johnson, who Rutherford said in the Madden interview would have to play on the right side or not be in the lineup.
Penguins’ fans have been waiting to hear that Johnson is not in the lineup since he arrived in 2018. That might be a reality this upcoming season given Rutherford’s recent comments. Matheson has been given Rutherford’s seal of approval and will most likely be in the lineup come opening night. Whether Johnson is on the right side, a healthy scratch, or even on another team is yet to be seen, but anything is possible.
The Penguins, like Matheson, are looking for a fresh start this coming season. The signing of former Washington Capitals head coach and former Penguins assistant Todd Reirden shows how serious they are in shaping up defensively. The Penguins have a knack for taking castaway defenders from other teams and turning them into important producers. Reirden played a big role in those changes during his first stint with the Penguins from 2010-2014.
Adding Colton Sceviour
After a day of confusion around the details of the Hornqvist for Matheson deal, it was finalized with the addition of Sceviour coming to Pittsburgh. On the surface, he looked like a throw-in to sweeten the deal, but his inclusion should have some positive changes in the lineup.
Not known as a point scorer or someone who can tally up penalty minutes, Sceviour is a fourth-line forward who plays a defensive-minded game. While the Penguins had one of the best defensive lines in the league last season, it is time to do some moving and shaking with that part of the lineup.
Zach Aston-Reese underwent a shoulder surgery that will keep him out of play until February, and has been rumored to be on the trade block. Teddy Blueger will probably be staying put as the fourth-line center, and that’s a good spot for him. Tanev is a lightning bolt of adrenaline for any line and has the ability to play anywhere in the lineup. Like mentioned before, he is a good candidate to continue Hornqvist’s physicality and energy.
Sceviour is about to start the last season of his contract. If he fails to fit in with the team, his $1.2 million cap hit is easy to move. There might not be much return for a fourth-line forward, but that is an easy hole to fill with depth.
Can’t Make a Move in Free Agency
Early in the offseason, Rutherford said he wanted to be very active and make a splash with the free agency pool. These recent moves not only fill holes in the lineup, but also create a cap situation where a big move can’t happen — that’s not a bad thing.
The additions the Penguins are attempting to, and have been adding to the roster are bottom-six forwards and third-pairing defensemen. Those types of players are not necessarily “splashes” in free agency. Can a big-name player be used in a depth role? Yes, but then you walk to the line of possibly overpaying for a player you aren’t fully utilizing.
In recent history, the Penguins are not a team that makes big free-agent acquisitions. They signed Tanev and Johnson in consecutive seasons, but those aren’t headline-grabbing names in the NHL world. The last time the Penguins brought in a big name from free agency was possible future Hall of Famer Sergei Gonchar in 2005.
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While fans will remain divided when discussing the deals Rutherford has made recently, one can’t forget that there are more moves on the horizon. A decision needs to be made with Johnson who has to compete for a spot in the lineup. The team will most likely not hold on to both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Letang and Bryan Rust have both been rumored to have been asked about. Pens fans know Rutherford is nothing if not open for trades.
Currently, there is no date set for when the next season will begin. This offseason is soon to be a circus of headlines, and the Penguins will be making a few of their own.