I, Kevin Creagh, am of sound mind and body. I am not frothing at the mouth with disgust about the present state of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but am rather viewing them through a dispassionate lens for what they truly are.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are broken.
Whatever used to mesh together so well has been reduced to this cringe-worthy display orchestrated by the sounds of metal grinding on metal. Porsche parts are intermingled with Lamborghini parts that are intermingled with Honda parts to create a Rube Goldberg-ian machine that no longer serves its intended purpose.
The window of opportunity for this team has, sadly, come to a close. If this team was just one move away from being on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders, this article would not exist. But there is something rotten to the core with this team and it must be rebuilt from the ground up.
I remember an editorial written in the New York Times by Gail Collins titled “The Things We Build Don’t Last Forever”. The premise was about an old stone wall in New England and how it had fallen into disrepair. If I remember correctly (and it’s been about 7 years, so probably not) she tied it into the failing health of her father. I’ve always kept that title in my mind to describe that something we once loved and cherished will inevitably decay before our eyes.
To that end, here are the 6 steps (some more painful than others) that I see as necessary to return the Penguins to glory. But this plan won’t result in a contender next year. It may take a few years to properly draft and re-configure the team.
1. Fire The Dinosaur GM And Hire A Fresh, Analytically-Inclined GM
For a rebuilding project of this magnitude, the new era of the NHL calls for a fresh GM that does not possess a calcified view of how to build a team. Nimble GM’s like the ones in Dallas (Jim Nill), Boston (Don Sweeney) and in Buffalo (Tim Murray) have been able to make bold deals that have brought in both present and future talent in the form of 1st round draft picks.
An understanding of new-wave possession stats and at least a passing interest in the field of biomechanics and injury prevention should also be prerequisites.
Realistically, the firing of Rutherford won’t happen until the Penguins’ offseason, but it is imperative that if the Penguins miss the playoffs or have another early exit that this happen.
2. Trade Marc-Andre Fleury
Of all the personnel moves that I’m suggesting in this piece, this one is the easiest for me to call for. If the Penguins are going to embark on a rebuild of any magnitude, Fleury is the most expendable piece that also has significant trade value.
I’ve always been higher on Fleury than others, it seems, but he’s not a top-flight goalie. He never has been and at this point in his career he is what he is. And that is an athletic goalie capable of making a 10-out-of-10 scale save in one moment and then following it up with a head-scratching soft goal one moment later.
Fleury is signed for 3 more years following this season at an average cap hit of $5.75M/year. That cap hit puts him at the 15th highest goalie salary in the NHL, which is right around where I would rank Fleury talent-wise. But there are plenty of teams, especially ones that are young and upcoming like Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, that could desperately use an upgrade over their current goalies.
By trading Fleury, the Pens can free up his $5.75M from a salary cap that is tight against the ceiling for the next few years. In Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins appear to have a competent NHL-caliber starting goalie and a top-notch goalie prospect. Fleury should be able to net a 1st round draft pick as part of a package consisting of other picks and prospects.
When Rutherford extended Fleury in October 2014, he said, “As long as I’m GM of the team, he’ll be our goalie.” You get your wish, Jim.
3. Figure Out What To Do With Kris Letang
I’m not sure of exactly how many concussions Letang has had now in his career, but the non-math answer is ‘a lot of them in a little amount of time.’ When Ray Shero extended Kris Letang with an 8 year/$58M deal, it seemed like a solid move to lock in another potential franchise cornerstone and a budding perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
But now at age 26, his professional future has been clouded by the concussions. It’s not entirely out of the question that this could turn into a Marc Savard-type of situation. Savard hasn’t played since the 2010-11 season and has been entrenched on the Long Term Injured Reserve list since then, first for the Bruins and now the Panthers (so they could stick him on the payroll and meet payroll requirements).
The Penguins placed Pascal Dupuis on LTIR for the duration of his contract after his blood clots prevented him from playing again. If Letang were to endure one or two more concussions in close proximity, it would be quite a pill to stick Letang on LTIR through the end of the 2022 season (at $7.25M/year), but it would allow the Penguins to move forward and replace him with a viable player.
Letang wouldn’t have much trade value, due to his unstable health situation, so the Penguins two options are to either stick with him and be in a state of flux on his availability or to put him on LTIR if the concussions persist.
4. Trade Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel is equivalent to icing on a cake. If a team is ready to contend for the Cup, Kessel can be the final piece. But just eating icing is not appetizing and on a rebuilding team Kessel isn’t the kind of guy you build around.
He’s signed for 6 more years after this season, but with Toronto retaining $1.2M, his cap hit is now at a more appealing $6.8M/year. For what he provides in pure goal scoring ability, that’s a fair number. His trade return wouldn’t be spectacular, mostly due to the duration of his deal being slightly onerous and his defensive limitations, but a package of mid-round picks and a young player wouldn’t be out of reason.
5. Figure Out What You Have With The Young Guys
When I ran this article concept past Leah, she was…not in agreement. She proceeded to rattle off a list of probably 10-12 players at Wilkes-Barre or still playing in juniors/college that she liked.
But not every young player can make the leap from juniors/college/minors to the NHL. And if they do make it, not all prospects achieve the same level of production. Leah was kind enough to write an article about a few of them yesterday. From the extensive list of players she provided to me and in the article, I don’t see any potential impact players in that list, more like a series of role players or mid-roster types.
That doesn’t mean the Penguins shouldn’t sift through that list over the next couple of years to see what they have. There could be a valuable nugget to be mined in that list.
6. Trade One Of Crosby Or Malkin
Yeah, you knew this was coming, I’m sure. I’m not insinuating that there’s some intrasquad beef between the two superstars. I’m simply saying that the results for the past 6+ seasons have not resulted in the desired effect of winning a Stanley Cup with the talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
As with Fleury, Kessel, and Letang, both Crosby and Malkin have no-movement clauses in their contracts. Essentially, it means they can’t be traded without the player’s permission, so if a trade possibility were to crop up, Crosby/Malkin could steer themselves to a certain destination. The strategy of trading one of these two may seem outrageous, especially since in a vacuum both possess talent nearly unrivaled in the league, but if something is not working for a period of six years, it’s time to develop a new game plan.
The league has changed and the Penguins have been locked in to the same roster as the league has rotated around them. Teams with more roster and payroll flexibility have been more nimble to adjust to the league’s changes. It goes without saying that a healthy Crosby or Malkin can return a bounty of players and picks that would help revitalize the Penguins’ franchise, in much shorter order than just nibbling around the edges here and there.
But here’s a fly in the ointment to this whole plan — the Penguins are currently up for sale in some form or fashion. It’s hard to believe that a new owner would be thrilled by the prospect of stripping key assets that bring fans to the Consol Energy Center. However, I see no other way forward for the Penguins other than being on the fringes of the playoffs for the next few years without these major structural changes.
Oh, and if the Penguins win the Cup this June, please either disregard this article or consider it the ultimate in reverse psychology that helped them win the Cup.