Rapidly nearing the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins are preparing for war. These playoffs could very well become the final instance in which Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are chasing a championship together. Although the Penguins’ stresses of remaining a dynasty are at play, their focus should be to retain the pieces of their squad who have contributed to their successes this season, most importantly, forward Rickard Rakell.
Rakell spent his first 10 NHL seasons with the Anaheim Ducks before being shipped to the Penguins for Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon at the trade deadline in late February. In 568 total games played, Rakell has notched 158 goals and 194 assists (352 points). He has pocketed four goals and nine assists (13 points) since joining the Penguins.
Rakell’s First Impressions as a Penguin
At the time of his trade, Rakell was on the next red-eye flight out of Southern California. Upon his arrival, head coach Mike Sullivan placed him on the third line, seemingly due to fatigue from traveling across the country. He showed promise from the jump, recording a hit and a handful of shots in his Penguins debut — a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The true impact that Rakell brings to the Penguins has come in the form of a line pairing with Crosby. Colloquially, many in the hockey community say that any winger will play more efficiently on a line with Crosby. However, Mike Sullivan has stated that the Penguins targeted Rakell because the team wanted a high caliber wing that could play alongside Malkin or Crosby (from ‘Rickard Rakell’s chemistry with Sidney Crosby could help Pens create missing scoring balance,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/17/22). Sullivan used Malkin’s four-game suspension as an opportunity to try out Rakell’s compatibility with first-liners Crosby and Jake Guentzel, which yielded more than a handful of genuine scoring opportunities.
Rakell is known for his ability to score highlight-reel goals, as seen from his multiple 30-goal seasons as a member of the Ducks. Adding an offensive guru like him to a core of already-seasoned veterans is sure to provide the Penguins with the depth they need to win in the postseason.
Retaining Rakell May Prove Difficult for Penguins
Perhaps any worry the Penguins may have regarding Rakell is unrelated to his performance, but rather because of the possibility that he does not return to the team next season. While he has shown incredible promise through his first 18 games with the Penguins, his slot on the team next year is not yet solidified. The Penguins have seven unrestricted free agents (UFAs) set to hit the open market after the postseason, including superstars Malkin and Kris Letang, as well as budding talent Bryan Rust. It will surely pose a challenge for general manager (GM) Ron Hextall to preserve the Penguins’ Cup-winning core beyond this season, but it leaves room to build a new system within the organization.
In the case of Letang, Frank Seravalli of The Daily Faceoff shared a report that the Penguins and their star defenseman are not on the same page when it comes to contract talks. The report states that Letang proposed a 5-year extension valued at $7 million per year, and the Penguins’ front office informed him they are not ready to discuss a deal of such a length. Simply put, the possibility of losing a high-value player such as Letang (or Malkin) provides the Penguins with cap space available to sign new-generation talents like Rakell.
Lastly, Rakell’s future as a Penguin is uncertain at this point. The Penguins are surely waiting to see how he performs in the playoffs before offering him a contract. That said, if the Penguins manage to sign him over the offseason, they are setting their organization up for success for years to come.
Hello! I’m Aaron, a newer member of THW’s Penguins writing team. I hail from Richmond, Virginia, a place with seemingly no hockey involvement. I’m currently at the end of pursuing my BA in Communications and hope to enter into the hockey media industry. #LetsGoPens