Penguins' Focus Shifts Drastically Ahead of Trade Deadline

(Associated Press)

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Just a few short weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins allowing the trade deadline to pass without adding a backup goaltender or depth to their defense would've been a shortsighted move on Ron Hextall's part. As things stand today, those are no longer the necessities.

Casey DeSmith looks like a goaltender reborn and Mark Friedman has showed that the Penguins could be okay if a depth defenseman were to miss some time down the stretch. Two issues have been fixed in a matter of weeks.

Now, it is no secret, that the Penguins are sorely missing secondary scoring. Check a box score from any of the Penguins' recent games and you'll realize the same sources are scoring for the Penguins and giving them the chance to win on any given night.

In fact, in 13 games since February 1st, the Penguins have scored 37 goals. That's good for 2.85 goals/game over that span. Of those 37 goals, 25 have been scored by either Sidney Crosby (7), Bryan Rust (7), Evgeni Malkin (6), or Jake Guentzel (5). There is nothing wrong with your stars playing at an elite level. Obviously, that will be needed in the playoffs.  However, secondary scoring will be needed in the playoffs too if the Penguins want to go anywhere beyond the first round. They aren't getting that right now.

On paper, this team looks as deep as anyone in the Eastern Conference playoff field. "On paper" doesn't win you championships, though. Performance does.  A scarier breakdown provides even more context into some of the Penguins secondary scoring struggles.

The most frustrating of the group, Kasperi Kapanen, has just one goal in his past 24 games. He has played almost all of that time, save for a few in-game demotions, with Malkin. After the pair showed a ton of chemistry last season, Kapanen has frustrated the coaching staff and front office alike upon Malkin's return to the lineup.  Not to mention the frustration greatly expressed all over social media by the fans.

Evan Rodrigues spent the early part of the season making a case for a lucrative long-term extension in Pittsburgh. He looked like a player the Penguins couldn't afford to let get away. Now? E-Rod has a singular goal in his last 25 games. He somewhat gets a pass because he is still playing good enough hockey to warrant a lineup spot. E-Rod plays good defense and still creates offensive opportunities, even though he's really struggled to get the puck in the net in recent weeks.

Jeff Carter, a recent recipient of a two-year contract extension, hasn't scored in 11 games. He's centering a line that hasn't been able to score a lot as a whole either. His face-off ability and his willingness to try and play defense is what keeps him more than valuable enough to keep centering the Pens' third line, but the lack of goals is still worrisome.

Other notable goalless streaks include, but are not limited to:

  • Dominik Simon has scored just three times in 52 games this season.
  • Brock McGinn, another early season scoring machine, has just two goals in his last 23 games.
  • Danton Heinen, continuing the early season scoring machine theme, has three goals in his last 22 games.

Those types of goalless droughts will haunt the Penguins in the playoffs. They just can't have a bunch of guys skating around with no chance of scoring. With the Penguins currently staring down a first-round matchup with the New York Rangers, they surely won't make it long if they see Igor Shesterkin opposing them in net for New York, maybe the league's best goaltender this season.

Fortunately, the Penguins just got Teddy Blueger back in the lineup on Tuesday evening. His return helps give the Penguins balance and spread out some of the wealth in the middle-six of the lineup. 

Jason Zucker has begun skating and, hopefully, will return prior to the trade deadline. Zucker, however only had two goals in 13 games prior to the injury and both were in his final game before going on injured reserve. The Penguins will need him to play well alongside Malkin.

Their other in-house Wilkes-Barre/Scranton options might be worth a try. The Penguins won the Cup in 2015 largely because of the influx of young talent that came up from WBS. Those types of players don't really exist now in their system but players like Radim Zohorna, Kasper Bjorkqvist and Drew O'Connor have shown they can play well when they're called upon.

Young players such as Alex Nylander, Nathan Legare, Sam Poulin, and Valterri Puustinen are in the minors waiting on an opportunity. It's not likely any of these guys will be high-impact players that can fix a problem for the Penguins but as a stop-gap to wake some of the other guys up between now and the deadline might not be a terrible idea.

The most likely fix seems to be looking outside the organization through a trade. The Penguins have been scouting other teams as well as other teams coming to watch their games. They certainly are monitoring the trade market as we approach the March 21st deadline.

There's plenty of names out there. I won't specify them in this piece as they'll be out over the next few weeks in my trade deadline targets pieces, which you can find here.

Vancouver continues to pop up as a name the Penguins could deal with because of Jim Rutherford's ties to the Penguins. Other teams and players will certainly be brought up as well.

Many people have mentioned the Penguins don't want to deal their first-round pick because of a barren prospect system but the chance to make yet another run with their core should be the main focus, regardless of what it costs if they are truly improving their team.

Forget about goalies and defenseman. Finding some scoring wingers that will provide more alongside Malkin and Carter should now be the focal point. Sullivan won't want to mess with the first or fourth line as they're practically set in those areas.

Go for it, Mr. Hextall. Let's add some middle-six scoring and push the Penguins into the "elite" category among the playoff teams in both conferences. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang deserve no less.