When a team is sitting just two points out of the last playoff spot in the conference, it needs every point it can get. And, although the Pittsburgh Penguins have shown significant improvement in many aspects of their game under head coach Mike Sullivan, that’s exactly where they remain – at the No. 10 spot in the East, just behind Boston and Montreal for a wild card berth.
If the Penguins miss out on the postseason by such a slender margin, it’s conceivable they will look back with regret at a week in mid-January that included stops in Carolina and Tampa Bay. Both games featured slow starts that put the Penguins in early deficits, impressive rallies that brought them all the way back to tie or, versus the Lightning, take the late lead – then fall short in the 3-on-3 overtime format that seemed to be made for the strengths of their skilled roster.
The Penguins have now lost their last four contests that went to the extra frame, squandering four potentially critical points. “It comes down to finishing,” said captain Sidney Crosby after Friday’s loss in Tampa. “I don’t think there’s been a lack of chances. If that was the case, we would have to maybe change something. I would say [we need to] just take advantage of the chances we get.”
Simply put, Pittsburgh needs game breakers. And, in going without a goal for the past 19 games, winger David Perron – who had 50-point seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers before being dealt to Pittsburgh last January – has been a noteworthy example of exactly the opposite.
Out in Anaheim, meanwhile, winger Carl Hagelin, whose speed tormented the Penguins in their playoff round against the New York Rangers last spring, had been struggling since his summer trade to the Ducks, racking up only four goals and 12 points in 43 games. That’s well off the pace of his past two years with the Rangers, where he twice scored 17 goals and had 33- and 35-point seasons.
In a classic case of two players who could use a change of scenery, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and Ducks GM Bob Murray worked into the wee hours of Saturday morning to agree on a deal to swap the 27-year-old wingers. Anaheim also gets Adam Clendening, a 23-year-old, mobile defenseman who brought a spark to the Penguins’ blueline in the nine games in which he appeared this season, but was never able to consistently crack the NHL lineup.
Hagelin has been clocked as one of the fastest skaters in the league, which also makes him a valuable asset on the penalty kill. Drafted by the Rangers in 2007, he played for Sullivan in his first two NHL seasons, when the Penguins’ new head coach was serving as John Tortorella’s assistant in New York.
“He can really skate,” Sullivan said. “He’s a real good guy. He’s versatile; he can play up and down the lineup. He’s a good penalty killer. I think he can bring a lot to our team but, right off the bat, I think he brings an element of speed that will bring our team speed to another level.”
“He will fit this room really well,” said Patric Hornqvist, who’s trained with Hagelin in Sweden over the past few summers. “He takes pucks to the net and always works hard. It’ll be good for Geno [Malkin] to play with a fast guy on the wing there; he can create a lot of open ice for Geno and Phil [Kessel].
“He played in the East for a long time, too, and played against Pittsburgh for two playoff runs, so he knows this style. It’ll be a good transition for him.”
The Penguins take more of a financial risk in the deal, which will come into play this summer as they navigate the salary cap. Hagelin is in the first of a four-year deal with an annual value of $4M, while Perron’s $4.5M salary would come off Anaheim’s books this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Clendening’s financial impact, negligible at $760,000, is a bargain for the Ducks if he makes the roster. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer.
Time will tell if the gamble pays off in a playoff spot for the Penguins – or the Ducks, who are also just two points out of a wild card berth in the West.
“Desperation, urgency, they’re all words that are surrounding our dressing room,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said before Friday’s game at Tampa. “But I think it’s up to us to show it on the ice and down the stretch. There won’t be any free points, so you have to make sure you play the right way and gain those points.”
Hagelin’s first game as a Penguin comes Sunday afternoon, when Pittsburgh hosts the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s a team that’s pretty straightforward; use your legs,” Hagelin said. “And I feel like the D are trying to get as many quick [pucks up ice] as possible, so that’s probably one of the reasons they wanted to trade for me, for me to bring my speed.
“[Sullivan] said don’t worry too much about systems or anything, just play your game and do what you’re good at. Use my speed, create turnovers, win some battles in the corners and give [Malkin or Crosby] the puck.”