The NHL trade deadline is report card day of sorts for the league’s 32 general managers. The media and, perhaps most importantly, the ticket-buying fans hand out grades on how well the person entrusted with the wellbeing of their franchise did in improving their outlook.
For Penguins GM Ron Hextall, the observers have weighed in – and it’s less of an A, B or F than an Incomplete.
- In the days leading up to the deadline, Hextall went about trying to right some wrongs, specifically moving out some of the bad contracts that have hindered the cap-strapped Penguins’ ability to make moves this season. St. Louis gave Pittsburgh a gift when they picked up underachieving, 26-year-old winger Kasperi Kapanen off of waivers, freeing up the remainder of his $3.2M contract for this season and the entire cap hit for next season, too.
- After 29-year-old winger Brock McGinn and 27-year-old depth defenseman Mark Friedman cleared waivers, the Penguins recovered partial cap space by sending them to the AHL, then freed up McGinn’s full $2.75M contract through 2024-25 in a deadline day deal with the Anaheim Ducks. The Penguins got back depth, left-shot defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, with Anaheim retaining half of his $2.25M cap hit. The Penguins threw in a third-round pick in 2024, likely in exchange for the salary retention.
- As they continued to revamp their ineffective bottom six, the Penguins shipped defensive center Teddy Blueger, 28, to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for defensive prospect Peter DiLiberatore and a third-round pick in 2024. Blueger became expendable largely because of Ryan Poehling’s ability to fill the fourth-line center role, but a setback in Poehling’s recovery from an upper-body injury resulted in an unexpected need for Hextall to add to his center depth.
- That came in the person of Nick Bonino, 34, an integral part of the Penguins’ sparkplug third line during their 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs. Montreal helped to broker a three-team trade that ended with the Canadiens retaining half of Bonino’s expiring $2.05M salary cap hit, and the Penguins sent a seventh-round draft pick in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024 to the San Jose Sharks. Bonino remains a solid, two-way center and a modest offensive upgrade over Blueger.
- Hextall’s acquisition of forward Mikael Granlund from the Nashville Predators, in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick, was a mixed bag. The 31-year-old Finn brings versatility in that he can play all three forward positions, played on both special teams in Nashville and, with 36 points (9G, 27A) in 58 games with the Predators, provides more of an offensive threat than most players who have filled bottom six roles for the Penguins this year. Still, for a team trying to clear out salary cap, the $5M he’s owed in each of the two seasons going forward is a commitment, and probably one they didn’t need to make.
In the end, Hextall’s “Incomplete” comes down to it being tough to judge these moves in a vacuum. Overall, they put the Penguins in a better salary cap position going into next season, and that’s been a significant problem for them in a year when prospects – like NHL-ready Drew O’Connor – can’t get NHL opportunities because they have no financial wiggle room. Pittsburgh also might’ve lost out on a top-tier addition to its defensive corps in 24-year-old Jakob Chychrun, who ultimately went from the Arizona Coyotes to the Ottawa Senators for a reasonable package of draft picks while the Penguins were working to clear more cap space.
“It’s the world we live in right now, and it’s a tough world,” Hextall said Friday. “Nobody wants to take any money right now, so it’s not easy to create space. I feel like we were able to create some space and make our team better, so we’re happy with the way things went.”
Are the Penguins improved enough to legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup? It’s their mandate every season Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are on the roster, but they have their work cut out for them – especially in a Metro Division that saw the New Jersey Devils add Timo Meier, the New York Islanders add Bo Horvat, and the New York Rangers pick up Vladimir Taresenko and Patrick Kane. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the conference, where the deep Carolina Hurricanes made nice pickups in Jesse Puljujarvi and Shayne Gostisbehere and the Tampa Bay Lightning remain a perennial threat.
“I think we made our team better today, and I think there’s a lot of teams that are capable of winning the Cup. And yes, I’d say we’re one of them,” Hextall said. “I think the number of teams that are capable is greater than it used to be, with the salary cap and the way teams are constructed nowadays. I think a lot of teams loaded up, and it’ll be interesting to see how those teams do. There’s some good teams out there for sure, but we’ve got a proven group, we’ve got a hungry group and we’ve got a group of guys that we all think of as winners.”