Gameday 25: The “M” Word

Back to Florida go the Pittsburgh Penguins, revisiting the Tampa Bay Lightning after last week’s glorious 4-2 comeback win for Pittsburgh which featured Tristan Jarry’s first goal in the NHL. They’ll stay in the Sunshine State through Friday when they visit the Florida Panthers, then the Penguins return home for a quick visit by the “Stanley Cup champion-killing” Arizona Coyotes before heading up to Canada to visit the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the way things are going in the NHL right now, there are very few easy games and easy opponents; with the way Pittsburgh has been playing lately, they haven’t been making it easy for themselves, either.

Everything is hinging on the performance of the power play right now, currently on an 0-for-29 streak over the last eleven games and 7-for-67 for the season, good enough for third-worst in the League. Tack on the four shorthanded goals they’ve allowed, and the Penguins have the worst goal differential on the power play in the NHL. Sidney Crosby’s 2.3 points per 60 minutes of power play time is more than half his career low; Evgeni Malkin’s rate is second only to his injury-shortened 2010-11 number; Jake Guentzel’s rate is one point lower than his worst, and he has zero goals to boot; and Erik Karlsson’s rate is half of what he put out last year in San Jose. It’s incredible, unbelievable, and all the other superlative adjectives you can imagine.

It’s getting to the point where I wake up every morning like it’s Christmas, except in the anticipation of gifts it’s in the anticipation of someone being traded or fired. I have to imagine that Kyle Dubas is not oblivious to the situation and feels a change has to be made, and the first option (a trade) is probably more impactful than the second (firing someone). I hate to throw out names and options but the arrow is pointing straight at Jake Guentzel. He’s in the last year of his $6M/year contract, he’s 29 years old, he’s a left winger and he’s a point-per-game player. He is great at even strength and he can be quite good on the power play. He’s the most valuable asset on the roster from a movability standpoint as he has a 12-team no-trade list. One specific criticism of Guentzel on the power play is that he’s not the sort to get down and dirty in front of goal. (In fact, in the game against the Flyers the other day, he was stationed at the point, as far away from the crease as possible.) Many seem to think that kind of player is needed (a la Patric Hornqvist), but that’s a matter of a power play strategy that doesn’t ask for a lot of movement from the players.

There’s another relatively young point-per-game winger who is slightly more expensive than Guentzel and on an expiring contract with whom Dubas is already very familiar: Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander. Nylander is equal parts good at even strength and the power play, which is more than can be said about Guentzel. Over the past five seasons and of the 40 forwards to play at least 900 minutes on the power play, per 60 minutes:

PlayerPower play goalsPower play primary assistsPower play pointsPower play
goals for
Power play time on ice (per game)
William Nylander13th13th16th9th35th
Jake Guentzel28th32nd35th23rd20th
Sidney Crosby31st14th17th25th17th

Toronto could use someone like Guentzel who could definitely help them at even strength and maybe help them on the power play with the right system. Pittsburgh could use a more balanced player like Nylander and get marginally younger, and maybe take a shot at extending his contract as the salary cap increases next offseason. Both teams are right up against the cap, but the salary difference between Guentzel and Nylander is a little less than $1M, so with the right throw-ins from Pittsburgh (farewell Pierre-Olivier Joseph? maybe a draft pick in either direction?) Dubas could find a decent upgrade for the power play and the team as a whole. (Nylander being a natural right winger is another potential complication, but a minor one in the grand scheme of things.)

All I know is that things will need to change before long. The later the Penguins go into the system, and the more they spin their tires, the more they risk being stuck in the mud of mediocrity while other teams pass them. I don’t feel safe betting on the New Jersey Devils to continue being stuck in the bottom half of the Metropolitan Division standings. I also know that oftentimes over the past few seasons, when one team gets rolling they all do, and Pittsburgh is not in great position right now if that occurs over the course of 10, 15, 20 games. They’re in a rut, and they need to escape sooner rather than later.