Gameday 47: Fresh Start

With the All-Star break and the bye week behind them, the Pittsburgh Penguins get back to work tonight as they host the Winnipeg Jets for the first of two meetings between the two teams this season. The second meeting is this weekend – the second game of a back-to-back, starting with the Minnesota Wild on Friday – so it’ll be a quick chance for the two interconference foes to get to know one another before going their separate ways again, probably until next year. That said, there is a non-zero chance they could meet again, perhaps in June, but both teams have work to do to get to that point. Winnipeg is already pretty comfortably in a playoff spot as they are eleven points ahead of the Nashville Predators for third place in the Central Division, so they can focus solely on getting ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche to secure first in their division, and then focus on not wiping out in the playoffs.

For Pittsburgh, the hill is seemingly much steeper. They are fifth in the Metropolitan Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race, seven points behind both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings for a playoff spot. The Penguins have struggled to find consistency all season long, but they have kept afloat enough to be in the top 16 in the League. They’ve gotten excellent goaltending, excellent production from their top line, and enough production from the necessary players to cover up for those who have not been doing enough. They’ve gotten an MVP-caliber performance from Sidney Crosby. Most of their key players have been healthy (knock on wood). They are literally right in the middle of things, and that on its own is worth appreciating even if it’s not good enough or where they wanted to be at this point.


There are ten weeks and a day – 36 games – until the regular season ends for the Penguins, and plenty of time for them to go up or down the standings. I feel like it’s important to stress that this team has intended to be a playoff team and make a serious case for themselves to be Stanley Cup champions again. Whether or not they’ve looked like a contender to this point is irrelevant; it is their stated goal, much as it has been for the past however many years, to be “all in” for the Cup so long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are playing for this team. On paper, the roster should be good enough to be in that discussion, and with the positive things that have gone on with the team (most critically the goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic) they certainly have a good foundation going forward. They do have their issues, namely the power play, and it must be the focus of the team from top to bottom to straighten those things out if they are indeed to be taken seriously.

General manager Kyle Dubas has lots of decisions to make between now and the trade deadline on March 8. The one thing that everyone seems concerned about is Jake Guentzel, but the whole discussion really does seem like a red herring. (Author’s note: I had this whole big post written up literally titled “What To Do About Jake Guentzel”, but I guess the Cliff’s Notes version will suffice!) So long as the Penguins are healthy and actively in the playoff race, Guentzel is very likely to stay with Pittsburgh through the end of this season. Dubas would not be doing himself any favors to move out the second-most productive forward on the roster and spite the leading scorer and captain at the same time. Trading Guentzel would very likely be akin to throwing in the towel on this season and probably the next one as well. It would be like trading Jaromir Jagr to the Capitals all over again. I have gone back and forth on this over the past few months, but at the end of the day I just don’t see it happening.

Therefore, the aim would evidently be to bolster the roster somehow else, most likely via trading draft picks and prospects. Finding ways to move underperformers like Reilly Smith, Rickard Rakell or Ryan Graves down the depth chart would be ideal, but there’s always the concern that whoever would be brought in to fortify the team might not pan out. The Penguins are also right up against the salary cap (even closer now with their signing of Jesse Puljujarvi to a contract), so they can’t add much salary without seeing some go out. I would not be surprised to see something like Brayden Yager or Owen Pickering, plus the other of Pittsburgh’s first round draft picks in the next two years, plus one of the three aforementioned players in a deal to find a more consistently-producing second line forward.

That kind of trade may end up waiting until the deadline itself, if it even happens at all. In the meantime, the Penguins have the time and opportunity to figure themselves out. Again, the players they have on paper should be better than they’ve been, but they are not so far gone that they should actually be considering phoning it in for the rest of this season. Whatever has vexed them thus far and prevented them from playing up to their expectations and potential has to be put behind them. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be better than they have been, and with the time between now and March 8, they have this fresh start to focus, adapt, and be that better team.