With the conditions the NHL (and the rest of the world, for that matter) have been in, human interaction has become a premium. Something we once took for granted has now become a rare commodity for the current times, most notably evident in sporting events. All across the major four sports, the noticeable lack or reduction of fans has completely changed the game and its atmosphere for the time being.
While fans are finally starting to find their way back into arenas and stadiums, many are still left watching at home. With the growing complications and uncertainties of this hockey season, fans often have questions regarding the direction of their team, what they may be missing, and what kind of moves to expect from management as the trade deadline and playoffs approach. This article will feature my answers to questions from Penguins fans via an Instagram poll made possible by a Penguins fan page (@everyday.pens). Be sure to check him out for Penguins updates and potentially to be featured in future mailbags down the road.
What Do You Think This Team Can Do When They’re Fully Healthy?
In my opinion, I believe the Penguins can contend for a Cup this season. Barring any unforeseen circumstances or severe drop-offs, the Pens boast an extremely deep forward corps and goaltending tandem, both of which are among the league’s best with respect to production and analytics. They’ve proven they can play through adversity and injuries, as they’ve maintained a .658 points percentage up to this point despite only having two players not miss a game (Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel) and only nine skaters playing more than 30 games all season.
The defense has been a problem, at times, for the Penguins, but for the most part, it has been league average. One of the more important changes the Pens will need to make if they wish to contend is special teams adjustments. They currently possess a 20.9 percent power play and 78.3 percent penalty kill, ranking fourth and sixth in the division, respectively. Should they hope to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs and make it out of this “buzzsaw” division, they’ll need some health luck and improved special teams to do it.
If You Could Choose One Player To Trade for at the Deadline, Who Would It Be?
I feel the Penguins need a depth forward to round out their third line that can help relieve the pressure from the shoulders of the top 6 production-wise. Given the Pens’ current cap situation, they’ll need to be in an “add-one, remove-one” mindset when it comes to deals as the trade deadline approaches.
With that said, among the candidates who seem to be available and would make sense to acquire, I would love to see someone like Scott Laughton come into the Penguins’ lineup. Laughton has 17 points through 33 games with the Flyers this season, as well as factoring in on the penalty kill. The Flyers have been noted to be looking to shake up their lineup and core given their recent plummet in the standings and in play, so Laughton is almost definitely a potential trade candidate for them.
Laughton has proven himself over the years to be a reliable role player who can play anywhere in the lineup, which would benefit the Penguins immensely considering their continued injury problems. He’s in the first year of a two-year contract that pays him an AAV of $2.3M, providing the Pens with a fairly cheap bottom-six utility forward for the next two years.
If There Is Another Early Exit in the Playoffs, What Coaches or Players Will Get Fired or Traded?
Frankly, it all depends on the way the Penguins lose. If they lose embarrassingly, it very well may be the end of the Core 3 in Pittsburgh. While I believe Crosby is untouchable and always will be, the Pens have not given the same status to Malkin and Letang, likely resulting in the movement of at least one of the two. Both Malkin and Letang move into the last years of their deals next year, giving the Penguins plenty of incentive to move them while they can still produce at elite levels in order to speed up the rebuild that will ensue when the Core 3 retires or departs.
If the playoff loss is by a narrow margin, I suspect they’ll go down the “assistant coach” route again. Special teams, as mentioned previously, have been subpar all season long for the Penguins, primarily falling on the shoulders of Mike Vellucci and Todd Reirden. I feel Mike Sullivan has done enough to provide job security for next year, barring any unforeseen circumstances, so those two will likely be released if the special teams don’t improve quickly. However, change is imminent in an NHL offseason, so regardless of the severity of loss in the playoffs, I suspect the Penguins will cut some portions of their middle-six forward corps and top four d-corps at the very least.
What Should the Penguins Do About the Expansion Draft?
Unfortunately, given the Penguins’ immense forward depth, I don’t see a circumstance where they don’t lose an important player without giving up significant draft capital. Given the management of Brian Burke and Ron Hextall, it’s difficult to see them giving up picks to protect members of the middle six. I predict that the protected list for the Penguins would include seven forwards (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, and Jared McCann), three defensemen (Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Mike Matheson), and a goalie (Tristan Jarry).
The notable names left available from these selections are Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Mark Jankowski, and Juuso Riikola, and I likely see Seattle taking one of the first three. As a fan, I hope they trade a 2nd or 3rd-rounder to get Seattle to select one of the other options, but realistically, I don’t see how they pass up on one of the Penguins’ great role players.
Which Team Would Be the Best To Play Against in the First Round?
This one’s tough to choose. With such a difficult, tiring, and grinding division, no opponent is easy in the two-game sets through the regular season, let alone in a seven-game series. However, I feel the Penguins match up better against certain teams like the Washington Capitals in this instance. The Penguins are currently 4-2 against the Caps in their season series, with their last two matchups coming on April 29th and May 1st. The games have had a playoff atmosphere despite all being without fans in the building, and the tension between the two is as high as ever.
The Penguins, as most know, had a dominated Washington in playoff series up until 2018 when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. Since then, they have not had a playoff series against one another, primarily due to each having extreme difficulties passing the first round. A Capitals first round would not be easy but would certainly be much more favorable to Pittsburgh than if they were to match up against Barry Trotz’s defensive trap system in Long Island or the Perfection Line of Boston.
As the NHL regular season creeps on and the trade deadline nears, the fans entering the arena have demonstrated the beginning of a return to normal for both the viewers and the players. While packed playoff games are likely not in the cards for this season, the NHL Playoff atmosphere will certainly be there for the 16 teams who make the cut, with divisional rivalries being at an all-time high. The Penguins’ post-season success has dried up lately, but with the right acquisitions and matchups, they can return to their back-to-back Stanley Cup champion form.
Born and raised in Raleigh, NC. Played and coached hockey since 2008. Amateur Sports Writer of 2 years. Attending North Carolina State University. Writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.