Gameday 61: Jake Break

The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-3 on Tuesday, avoiding the embarrassment of losing at home to the team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and that hasn’t beaten Pittsburgh on the road since the Mike Johnston era. It was not without stress, as the Penguins let Columbus climb back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 before Pittsburgh pulled away for good on Jeff Carter’s team-leading fourth game-winning goal of the season, on the power play no less. Mike Johnston. Jeff Carter. Infamous names in Penguins franchise history. And yet minor actors in the grand scheme of things, playing their roles regardless of how poorly, and as much as Johnston’s name will eventually fade into obscurity (particularly since what happened after his departure was splendid), Carter’s will hopefully as well when his contract expires at the end of June.

One name which we will hopefully never forget is Jake Guentzel. It’s been an astounding career for Guentzel thus far, eight years now and just over 500 games with Pittsburgh, 561 if you count the playoffs. After being taken 77th overall in the 2013 Entry Draft, he came onto the scene in a major way in the 2016-17 season, notching 33 points in 40 regular season contests. Then he took that performance to the next level in the playoffs, leading the Penguins (and all playoff teams) in goals and game-winning goals en route to helping Pittsburgh secure their second Stanley Cup in a row and fifth in franchise history. Since then he has effectively never left the first line, often alongside Sidney Crosby, and he’s been a point-per-game player over the last six seasons. He is by far the best winger Crosby has played with (as a Penguin). And, in all likelihood, he will be gone by the time you read this, traded because Pittsburgh appears to be on the cusp of failing to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.

General manager Kyle Dubas is being pragmatic in this decision, but it’s fair to say that with this move (and subsequent transactions that may occur between then and Friday’s trade deadline) that the honeymoon period is over. Dubas has only been on the job for one season, and, yes, his predecessor(s) left him with a mighty mess to clean up. He has a coaching staff which has over-stayed its welcome. He has hardly any long-term assets, be it prospects or draft picks. The team, as always, is right up against the salary cap ceiling. The margin for error to make the playoffs rested tenuously on the roster he and others have built and it living up to or exceeding expectations. For all we know, the Penguins could still make the playoffs, but that’s not enough. The desperation to win the Stanley Cup again before the core retires is nearly tangible. The fact is that this team as constructed is not a serious championship contender, and part of that is Dubas’ fault.

All hope is not yet lost for this season, but moving your best winger is a sure sign of resignation to the end of hope. There are plenty of other players who could be moved as well, those who have underperformed (Reilly Smith, Ryan Graves, Rickard Rakell), those who have and have value as a result (Lars Eller, Alex Nedeljkovic, Chad Ruhwedel), and maybe even some players which would be shocking to move in the pursuit of the future (Marcus Pettersson, Tristan Jarry). After all, if your team isn’t going to be a realistic competitor in the postseason (if they even make it), what’s the point of holding on to valuable assets when some other team will pay you for them? Draft picks, prospects, cap space…all of it would be useful for preparing for next season, but you can’t have it unless you make tough decisions.

So Dubas will probably move Guentzel and whoever else he can over the next few days and likely again prior to the Entry Draft in June and start seriously retooling the team in his own way. Pretty soon it will no longer be a pastiche of Jim Rutherford’s, Patrik Allvin’s, Ron Hextall’s and his work. He will presumably have a lot of salary cap space to work with this offseason, as well as some draft picks and prospects, and perhaps we will see a more carefully crafted Penguins team next season. Maybe Guentzel will be back, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I wouldn’t assume that Mike Sullivan and/or the rest of the coaching staff will be gone, but they should be. It’s going to be fascinating to watch, even if it is sad and frustrating and disappointing that this is the beginning of the end in earnest for the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era in Pittsburgh.

Until then, there are still hockey games to be played and the off chance of fighting back into a playoff spot. It just doesn’t look like it’s going to go well.