Gameday 50: Somewhat Reassuring

Before they head out to the West Coast later this week, the Pittsburgh Penguins will start the post-All-Star-break and get in one home game tonight against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche. On the face of it, it would sound like a steep challenge for a Penguins team that has struggled this season, but so too have the Avalanche. They’ve dealt with some health issues to key players, including the currently-out-of-the-lineup Valeri Nichushkin, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson, and Gabriel Landeskog, the last of whom has yet to play a game this season. Their goaltending tandem of Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz has played quite well and similarly to last season with Francouz and Darcy Kuemper, but the offense has been hampered by a team shooting percentage in the bottom quarter of the League, and that’s kept the Avalanche from playing up to the level they were at this time last year and beyond. As it stands right now they are tied with the Calgary Flames for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. So, yes, it is somewhat reassuring to know that the Penguins are practically on par with the defending champions! (Can we get a banner made to hang in the rafters? Might be the last one we see for a while…)

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall talked with the media on Sunday and gave them an overview of the team’s plans for the trade deadline. Basically it’s what we’ve been reading and discussing for the last few weeks: if there are to be any trades, it’s going to be to improve the bottom six forwards. Really what he said was that the top players have performed well and that the role players need to step it up, and if they aren’t going to he will go out and get guys who will. He went out of his way to defend head coach Mike Sullivan’s performance compared to the team’s performance, which is not too surprising. It doesn’t sound like he would use this summer’s first round pick in tandem with another roster player to cut salary, but he didn’t say he wouldn’t trade the first round pick at all. (Supposedly he has said before that the first round pick is off the table, but I wouldn’t trust any GM any further than I can throw them.). In typical Hextall fashion, there wasn’t anything particularly exciting about his responses.

Of course he didn’t blame himself for his role in the team’s mediocrity. He is solely responsible for the makeup of the third line that has done so poorly this season. Last offseason, he let Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev go for practically nothing. Then this past offseason he did not have to extend Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brock McGinn, the three of whom have a combined salary of just over $9 million and a 23-28—51 statline this season. Carter, like most normal players in their late 30s, isn’t going to provide a point every other game like the Penguins need him to in his third line role. McGinn has never gone over .38 points/game in his career, and if advanced stats are your preference this has been an abysmal year for him, particularly defensively. He’s nowhere near worth the money he’s making and he’s under contract for two more seasons. Of the three guys on the third line, Kapanen is the only one who could be reasonably expected to produce offense (and somehow this season he’s just shy of .5 points/game, which is right around his career average), but he can’t do it alone, and certainly not with a couple of albatrosses on his line.

So we know what needs to be done, the questions are: can it be done, and how? Carter’s not going anywhere – he has a full no-movement clause, and he would be wasted anywhere other than the third line – and McGinn is an overpaid fourth-liner pulling third-line duty, which is a tough sell for any team looking to do anything other than tank. It looks to me like Hextall is going to have to bite the bullet and find a way to move McGinn, and it will probably involve an overpayment (à la Jim Rutherford) to whichever team decides to take on his general lack of ability.

Of course, nothing is impossible, but like with Mr. Rutherford, as a general manager it doesn’t sound like good management to put yourself in a position to need to correct your own mistakes. What worries me is that he’s been content to let the situation fester; either he’s been content to wait and see if things improve on their own, or he hasn’t been able to swing a deal sooner to fix the situation earlier. In any event, he’s got until this time next month to settle the roster and put it on a better path to succeed.