Gameday 60: Heating Up

The Pittsburgh Penguins head out on the road for their longest remaining road trip of the season, a three game stretch in the southeastern United States, starting tonight with the first of two meetings with the Nashville Predators. The Predators are currently in fifth place in the Central Division, tenth overall in the Western Conference, and six points behind the Seattle Kraken for the second Wild Card seed. As I mentioned recently, unlike the Eastern Conference, the West’s playoffs are looking like a crap-shoot with just six points separating first (Vegas) and eighth (Seattle) in the Conference. Along with Calgary (four points behind Seattle), Nashville is the only other team within striking distance of a playoff spot, so it’s not unreasonable for the Predators to make a late push to squeak into the playoffs and see how things go from there. After the Penguins trounced the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-3 on Sunday, Tampa acquired slumping middle-six forward Tanner Jeannot from Nashville in exchange for defensive prospect Cal Foote and a trove of draft picks. A great deal for the Predators and a parting gift from general manager David Poile as he prepares to head off into the sunset.

The title of this Gameday is quite clever, you see, as things are indeed heating up. Starting with the fact that today is the last day of meteorological winter, add in the Penguins have just their third two game winning streak, they’re heading to Nashville and then down to Florida for the next two games, and, in case you forgot, the trade deadline is this Friday. On that front, if it wasn’t readily apparent, Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall is still on the clock to do something. Yes, he waived Kasperi Kapanen, and that decision (along with Kapanen being claimed by St. Louis) freed up enough cap space to activate Jan Rutta from injured reserve, and since then the Penguins are 2-0. But Pittsburgh still sits quite tenuously and riskily in the second Wild Card seed in the East and, with the exception of the Carolina Hurricanes, every other team in front of them in the Eastern Conference and particularly in the Metropolitan Division has done something to improve their team in the lead-up to the trade deadline.

Just yesterday, the New Jersey Devils landed the big fish on the market, scoring winger Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks. Bo Horvat went to the New York Islanders, Vladimir Tarasenko is now a New York Ranger (and Patrick Kane likely will be one soon too), and I haven’t mentioned Boston or Toronto yet but they have strengthened themselves as well. Carolina, with a bunch of guys on LTIR (including Max Pacioretty), will have about $10M to play with before Friday’s deadline. By contrast the Penguins have about $2M. Unless Pittsburgh truly is indestructible now in the wake of Kapanen’s departure, I think they’ll have to do something still to improve their roster. Hopefully it won’t cost them five draft picks to upgrade their third line like Tampa Bay seemed to think it did!