After yet another disappointing post-season exit, the Pittsburgh Penguins need a new direction. Yesterday, Ken Campbell wrote that he believed drastic changes were in order and last night, Adam Proteau mentioned the discussion around trading Evgeni Malkin is one worth considering.
But now is not the time to panic. While the Penguins do need to shift gears, they don’t need an entirely new vehicle to move on from this latest disaster. How can the Penguins address concerns about their standing as a Cup contender this summer? Here are some ideas.
1. Dan Bylsma needs to go – Ray Shero too?
Yesterday I asked if Game 7 would be Bylsma’s last behind the Penguins bench and after the 2-1 loss, I believe it should be. At this point, moving on with a new coach has to be inevitable. But what about the GM?
Shero has a very strong base from which to start building a championship roster, but the Penguins need more than Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Kris Letang to win the Cup. Look at the Hawks, who run much deeper than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. They also have Bryan Bickell and Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw and Kris Versteeg…and it goes on. Look at the Boston Bruins, who have perhaps the best third line in the NHL. Look at the Los Angeles Kings, who rival the Blackhawks with their depth. And then look at the Penguins, who played with Tanner Glass, Craig Adams and Brian Gibbons – among other not-so-great depth players – in Game 7. Depth wins championships.
Some of this comes through good trading. While the Hawks went out and added Versteeg and the Kings added Marian Gaborik via trade this season, the Penguins picked up Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc. Last year it was Jarome Iginla, who did not fit in. The talent analysis has been lacking and the players who have been acquired recently either haven’t produced to expectations or didn't fit in with the Penguins’ needs well enough. That falls on the GM.
Another way these top teams acquire depth is through the draft. The Hawks were able to rebound from a mini teardown after 2010 partly because of their strong selections. The Kings seem to have a bottomless barrel of prospects from Tanner Pearson to Linden Vey, Tyler Toffoli and more. And the Bruins have drafted well (Dougie Hamilton is killing it), while also doing a good job of acquiring young talent through trade (Carl Soderberg, Reilly Smith) and signings (Torey Krug).
The Penguins? It’s safe to say they’ve struggled at the draft table for too long.
Since the 2007 draft, the most goals Pittsburgh has gotten from one of the players it picked was the nine Olli Maatta scored this year. After him, Dustin Jeffrey’s seven goals are the next highest. Contenders can’t be sustained with that kind of record.
So while the Penguins appear to need a new voice leading the way on the bench, they also definitely need some player personnel moves. If Shero stays, the new coach will have to work with the roster he builds – and given the GM’s recent track record in trades and at the draft table, the Penguins may be better served with a new leader in the front office, too.
2. Whatever you do, don’t trade Evgeni Malkin
Do the Penguins need a better defense? Yes. Do they need better depth at forward? Yes. Do they need a new goalie? Yes. But should they trade Malkin to get all or some of these things? Heck no.
Look again at the top NHL contenders and tell me what you see. All of them have a rock on the blueline and all of them have terrific strength down the middle. And, two years after trading Jordan Staal and replacing him with Brandon Sutter, we’re actually considering a Malkin trade would be good for the Penguins? That’s crazy.
For Malkin, the Penguins would surely get a return that would help with their depth woes, but they’ll never come anywhere close to replacing his presence at the center position. Those big skilled pivots are incredibly hard to find and acquire in the NHL today, so when you finally have one – especially when he’s signed for pretty much his entire career – you hang on tight. The answer to improving these Penguins will not be found by trading Malkin. In fact, he is precisely the kind of player you need to have on your roster to be a legitimate Cup contender today. Trade almost any other player besides Malkin to get what you need.
3. Do something about the goaltending- and it doesn't need to be big
Marc-Andre Fleury needs to go. Yes, he was the Penguins' best player at times, but he was also their worst at others and that kind of inconsistency can not be tolerable at such an important position. But while the Penguins need a new goalie, they don’t need to trade a big chip (like Malkin) to do it.
The goalie market is weak and there will be options for the Penguins this summer. All they need is a goalie who is less likely to make the bad gaffe or let in the wrong goal at the wrong time. And they don’t even need a significant investment to do this – last year, Tomas Vokoun nearly saved their bacon with a 2.01 GAA and .933 save percentage in the post-season, while on a $2 million cap hit.
Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, Vokoun and Tim Thomas are a few names who may become available through free agency this summer. Perhaps Antti Niemi becomes available in San Jose. James Reimer will certainly be up for grabs out of Toronto. There will be plenty of options out there, and though none of these names are terribly inspiring on their own, perhaps pulling a tandem out of this group is the answer.
4. If you are going to trade, acquire defense
To go in a new direction in net, you perhaps don’t even need to trade Fleury to acquire the piece. If you can acquire a new goalie or two through signings or trades involving lesser players, you can save Fleury to use as trade bait to improve the blueline. Maybe you even use Letang to improve the blueline – if the right trade is there.
While the goaltending was up and down this post-season and the forward units sorely lacked depth, the blueline was still the most consistent trouble spot in the lineup. Whatever the Penguins do this off-season, they have to return for the start of the 2014-15 season with major changes to the defense corps. If Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen both leave via free agency (Orpik should be a lock to walk anyway) that will give the Penguins some cap wiggle room. And if they’re able to trade Fleury and replace him with a less onerous cap hit, they’ll get more room that way, too. And there are a pile of forwards who are set to hit the UFA market off Pittsbuegh's roster – and they can’t be shy to let all of them walk and start this summer from scratch with as much cap space as they can scrounge. Most of that should be used on the defense corps - with shrewd moves to improve the third and fourth forward lines.