Reload or Rebuild: Change is Needed in Pittsburgh

It’s hard to argue the existence of talent in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room. At 28, Evgeni Malkin is one of the best centers in the game. His younger teammate, Sidney Crosby, is easily one of the best in the world.

Recently, however, the sheer brilliance of these two has proven worthless when it comes to the NHL playoffs and the team’s overall success. Sure, Malkin is still averaging almost 1.20 points per game over his regular season career and Crosby is averaging a whopping 1.36, but it’s the lack of supporting cast that has cost them on a yearly basis since the team won the Cup in 2008-09.

Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL, Hockey, Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston certainly isn’t to blame for the Penguins postseason woes. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

But as Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston writes, “After being eliminated by the New York Rangers in five games, the Penguins must make some bold roster decisions and they’d be doing themselves a disservice if they don’t seriously explore moving Malkin and his $9.5-million cap hit.”

With that in mind, what options do the Penguins have? Certainly they can’t throw the blame on newcomer coach Mike Johnston. And while there will always be critics of team’s general managers, Jim Rutherford isn’t to blame either. But the Penguins do have a couple of options – reload their roster or start from scratch.

Can the Penguins Reload Their Roster?

For years, during the Pat Quinn era, the Toronto Maple Leafs used this system and remained competitive. In a nutshell, reloading your roster involves the acquisitions of proven veteran players who still have some gas left in the tank.

When the Leafs did it, acquisitions included Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny and even Joe Nieuwendyk. But when it came down to the playoffs, the Leafs always came up a little short. While it’s not the recommended way to revive a struggling franchise, it can be a bandaid solution to what will eventually be exposed as a gaping wound.

Looking at the Pens lineup, they currently have eight forwards under contract for 2015-16 – including Malkin, Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, David Perron, Pascal Dupuis, Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling. Add to that the injured-riddled Beau Bennett as a restricted free agent and the Penguins don’t have a lot of holes up front.

The back end is much the same. Pittsburgh has almost $13-million locked up in four defensemen next season – Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy and Olli Maatta – while both Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff will have the ability to test free agency if they choose.

Finally, the team’s locked up goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but could be in the market for a backup as Thomas Greiss will enter the offseason without a contract.

That leaves the Penguins just shy of 20 percent of their cap to work with in signing free agents, if this is the way they’re looking to go. They could also move guys like Perron or Hornqvist to open up cap space and possibly upgrade the talent level on their second and third lines.

Keep in mind, both Kunitz and Dupuis have both battled injuries the past couple seasons and aren’t getting any younger. With Kunitz set to make $4-million (a cap hit of $3.85-million) next season and Dupuis at $4-million ($3.75-million cap hit) it’ll be hard to move these veterans who’ve seen a decline in their output.

Taking all of this into consideration, reloading won’t be easy for a team pressed to fill out their remaining roster spots with roughly $12-million. While it remains an option if the Pens can move some parts, it’s not ideal in their position.

Is It Time To Start Over?

While many might laugh or mock the idea of a Penguins rebuild, it might be their best option at this point in time. Now, let’s make it clear, this doesn’t meant that both Malkin and Crosby should be moved, but the idea has to be considered.

Malkin, Crosby, Letang and Fleury eat up just over $31-million in cap space. Even if the league cap hits $72-million, the Pens have over 40 percent of their cap locked up in these four players. Certainly to part ways with any of these players would cause an outcry from Penguins fans and even questions from others around the league.

But consider this – even if the Penguins find a way to move the injury-plagued defenceman Letang – his spot clears up 10 percent of the cap room in 2015-16 for Rutherford’s staff to play around with.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL, Hockey,
Is it time for the Penguins to unload the injury-plagued Letang? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Now it would be hard to part ways with a blueliner that can put up 40 plus points in a season, but over the past four seasons he’s missed 35 percent of Pittsburgh’s regular season games.

The problem they find themselves in right now is that most of their big contracts will be hard to move – Kunitz, Dupuis and Letang all with big cap hits and Letang with far too much term left. Pittsburgh will likely have to eat some of the contract or take on another big contract in return if they were to move these types of players.

This leaves Malkin and Crosby. Yes, their contracts are also long-term and at significant salary, but the numbers match the players more realistically (if that’s possible in this age of the NHL). The return that would come from moving a guy like Malkin could include a first round pick in this year’s draft – something the Penguins lack at the moment – as well as a young and coveted prospect and possibly a decent roster player.

“If you can get two or three pieces including a guy that can play with Crosby, don’t you have to think about it?” asked Elliotte Friedman on Boomer and Rhett on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “At what point do you look at it and say yeah, we won the Stanley Cup, but that was six years ago? These two guys together make $18.2 million, and we keep losing in the playoffs because we don’t have enough support pieces.”

Rebuilding – in this case – leaves the Penguins with some solid players and in a good position to remain competitive while acquiring some future talent that could add to the franchise in minimal time. If they choose to go another route, it could cost them if they don’t acquire some help in the offseason and might actually cause a bigger overhaul in the long-term future of the team.

Realistically, there are three options for the Pens – go with what you’ve got, reload with capable veterans or start a slight rebuild. Done properly, any of these options could work, but at the risk of long-term success.

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Tape2Tape – a weekly column – brought to you by The Hockey Writers. (Logo by Amy MacKenzie)

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Tape2Tape is a column looking at some of the biggest stories from around the world of hockey. Discussing different topics, it focuses on one major story each week. Agree or disagree, writer – Andrew Forbes – would love to hear what you have to say.