At age 36, Sidney Crosby is playing for a singular goal. The Penguins captain measures success in Stanley Cups, and he’s looking for a fourth before he hangs up his skates.
As the Penguins enter the All-Star break, Crosby is not only doing his part; he’s earned a place in the Hart Trophy conversation as the NHL player most valuable to his team. Crosby’s pacing the Penguins with more than a point per game, with 50 (27G, 23A) in 46. He’s taken an incredible 1,069 faceoffs, winning nearly 60% (59.3) of them.
Pittsburgh’s captain has also regularly been a game-breaker, with five clutch goals – three game winners, one game-tying goal and one late game-tying goal (scored in the final three minutes).
“Sometimes we marvel at what he does out there; we get the best seat in the house,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “The thing I admire most about Sid is his creativity, how he scores goals and his ability to do it so many different ways. His ability to think it; it has to start in his brain first before he executes on some of these things.”
Yet in one of the signature seasons of Crosby’s career, at the halfway mark, the Penguins find themselves with just 51 points – five behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third place in the Metro Division, and six behind the Detroit Red Wings for an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot.
The Penguins’ inconsistent first-half performance puts Kyle Dubas in an unenviable position. The GM, who said in a December press conference he’d assess the team at the All-Star break, more recently said he’d continue to watch and see beyond that point. “In reaching out to him on this day, it sounds as though that wasn’t a hard deadline,” said TSN’s Chris Johnston. “He insists that his team will make decisions for him in terms of their performance, so I don’t think they’re going to have clarity in the next week or two.”
Dubas essentially has two options leading up to the March 8 trade deadline – determine where the Penguins need to add to improve their playoff chances, or decide the team simply isn’t a Cup contender and look for the best possible return on the assets he can realistically move.
Jake Guentzel, 29 and about to earn a massive raise on his $6M annual contract this summer, is likely their best trade chip in that scenario. Then again, the chemistry between Crosby and longtime linemate Guentzel, on full display in a game-tying goal that helped set up an important win in the Penguins’ first-half finale, has been unmatched in Crosby’s career.
You love to see a game-tying goal 👏
Guentzel has points in 18 of 23 home games this season, and leads the Penguins with 25 points at home (11G-14A). pic.twitter.com/lRKy1fWNBC
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 28, 2024
“Incredible; it’s one of the better ones we’ve seen in a while,” Sullivan said. “[Crosby] just has eyes in the back of his head. I don’t know how he knows [Guentzel’s] there or saw him, but we just grow accustomed to it. That was certainly a highlight-reel goal, and the timing of it was critical. We got a lot of momentum.”
Moving Guentzel wouldn’t just impact this season, but the remaining seasons of the captain’s career, which are virtually certain to be in Pittsburgh, which makes it almost as certain the Penguins will continue to look to rebuild on the fly for the next several years, not conduct an all-out fire sale.
Goaltending has been a significant position of strength for the Penguins, with starter Tristan Jarry (2.53 GAA, .913 Sv%, tied for league lead with five shutouts) and backup Alex Nedeljkovic (2.60 GAA, .918 Sv%, one SO) giving them a chance in nearly every contest. In fact, Pittsburgh has allowed the second-fewest goals (124) in the NHL at the break.
That’s important, because the Penguins, once known as an offensive juggernaut, simply aren’t scoring enough. Of 32 NHL teams, Pittsburgh is No. 26 at the break with 136 goals scored – and if you guessed it’s their No. 31 power play bringing them down, converting just 13.1% of the time, you’re correct. If Dubas is looking for areas to improve at the deadline, bringing a fresh look to the stagnant man-advantage would be a good place to start.
Players who could be on the move for Pittsburgh include winger Reilly Smith, who hasn’t been quite the player the Penguins hoped they were getting when Dubas acquired him last summer, and defenseman P.O Joseph, a prospect with high upside when he arrived in the 2019 Phil Kessel trade who’s now a frequent healthy scratch.
Guentzel, Smith and disappointing offseason acquisition Ryan Graves made the TSN Trade Bait Board earlier this month – though defenseman Graves’ five-year, $4.5M-per deal could prove tough to move.
Time will tell what direction Dubas takes with the Penguins. For now, they head into the break with three of four points from a two-game homestand that felt like a significant lift from a demoralizing roadtrip the previous week. That West Coast swing saw them drop two in Las Vegas and Arizona – the latter featuring an own-goal that might’ve been the low point of the Penguins’ season.
“[Now] we can bring some juice and some positivity into the break,” said defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who scored in overtime against Montreal Saturday to send the Penguins into the break on a high note. “It’s a real battle out there, the whole East, and to come back once again but this time come out on top can help our confidence. A huge two points.”