by Emmet Mahon
Last week, a barely noticeable transaction occurred within the Penguins' organization. Twenty-two-year-old center Filip Hallander signed a five-year deal with Timra IK in Sweden’s top hockey league, Hockey Allsvenskan. The deal signaled a return to his native land and allowed him to be closer to his two-year-old son, Colin. Undoubtedly, that was his primary motivation for leaving North America and continuing his career in Europe. However, in interviews he granted after his signing, he acknowledged that the Penguins' unwillingness to promote him during the season, and when they did, their failure to utilize him on the ice, factored into his decision.
His departure does not signal some seismic shake up of the organization to its core. In fact, the person most impacted by his defection is likely his landlord in Wilkes-Barre who must dust off his “For Rent” sign. However, as his .76 points per game in the AHL and his youth indicate, he is the kind of asset sorely lacking throughout all levels of the Penguins franchise. He displayed enough skill in the AHL to merit consideration as a bottom six forward at the next level. Young, inexpensive, and utilizable talent is virtually bereft with the Penguins.
When blessed with generational talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the only prudent course of action is, damn the future, win big and win now. That game plan resulted in three Stanley Cups. But as economic professors will instruct you, there is no such thing as a free lunch, or a championship parade without a cost. Eventually, the bill comes due, and that day is rapidly approaching. Could the Penguins have extended their window further, perhaps. But those plans have been waylaid by bad trades, bad signings, bad decisions, and really bad drafting.
After the Penguins captured their last Cup at the end of the 2016-2017 season, then General Manager, Jim Rutherford, was concerned about the physical toll his team was withstanding on the way to their championship. On the first night of the 2017 NHL Draft, he made the questionable decision to trade pick 31 to the St. Louis Blues for their second-round pick, 51st overall, and enforcer Ryan Reaves. It was the beginning of a cycle by Rutherford and his successor, Ron Hextall, to overcorrect into skids while trying to maintain control of a championship caliber roster. Some of the moves proved to be ineffectual. A few turned out to be washes. Many did not produce the desired results, and now the Penguins are staring into a talent abyss of their own making.
From 2013 until 2019, the Penguins have used their draft picks, rarely their first, on 34 players. In 2013, they selected Tristan Jarry in the 2nd round and Jake Guentzel in the 3rd round. Since then, the results have been ugly. Of the remaining 32 picks, the only notable players, and that might be a stretch, were few and far between. In 2014, they drafted Kaspari Kapanen in the 1st round and Sam Lafferty in the 4th. The 2015 draft yielded the mercurial and universally disliked Daniel Sprong in round two. Calen Addison, who would become part of the Jason Zucker trade, was their 2 nd round pick at 52, and six picks later they selected Hallander. The 2019 draft initially showed promise with the first two selections being Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare. They had the makings of prototypical power forwards that could finally add scoring punch to the bottom six if not higher. There were questions regarding skating for both players, but many believed they could be improved enough to make the big club in a few years.
Unfortunately, Legare has plateaued at the AHL level, earning multiple healthy scratch designations. This season, Poulin put his career on a sabbatical. He stepped away from the Baby
Penguins to focus on his mental health and wellbeing. Upon his return to Wilkes-Barre, he played sparingly. His status as a prospect is secondary to him being well and happy. Should he eventually make it to the NHL, and enjoy the experience, that is a bonus.
It is interesting that the notable players selected between Guentzel and Poulin have all been traded by the Penguins. Some of them twice. It is too early to judge the draft classes from 2020 through 2022. Last year’s 1st round selection, Owen Pickering, looks like the Penguins may have acquired a legitimate prospect. His presence in the organization is enough to lift them out of their traditional last place ranking of prospect pools. By missing the playoffs this season, the Penguins will be in the lottery with a chance to improve from their current 14th overall selection. They could find themselves drafting as high as 4th overall. That draft pick slotting might impact offseason moves, depending on who is hired as their new general manager.
So, from where does help arrive? The Penguins are still too old, too slow, and not physical enough for any thought of a deep championship run. They are saddled with bad contracts with Jeff Carter, Mikael Granlund, and Jeff Petry. There does not appear to be anyone of significance ready in the minors, college, or junior hockey. Per Spotrac, the Penguins have an estimated $20,208,158 of cap space for this offseason, but only have 15 players, plus the buyout amount of Jack Johnson, under contract for next season. Impact players will eat that up quickly. Trading the 14th pick could entice some franchise to take on one of the awful contracts currently hanging around their necks. In a draft this deep, and the system so lacking, it would have to be a knock your socks offer for the new GM to consider. Should the Penguins win the lottery and improve their draft positioning, that pick should absolutely be off the table. Regardless, they must improve their draft success past the point where the blind squirrels are laughing at the ability to find an acorn.
What should Pens fans have to look forward to next season? With Crosby still one of the game’s elites, and Malkin and Letang still among the best at their respective positions, the team will continue to be entertaining, even, at times, at a comical level. They are good enough to flirt with a playoff berth and with some luck, could be a tough out. Make no mistake, all of that is incumbent on the complete reconstruction of the bottom six forwards and, at least, the bottom defensive pairing. The good news, with savvy and progressive new hires in the front office, the Penguins can avoid the apocalyptic fates of the Blackhawks and Red Wings.
Note: The Penguins goaltending depth also took a hit last week when restricted free agent, Filip Lindberg, signed a contract with TPS in Finland’s top league, Liiga. Lindberg was signed as a college free agent from the University of Massachusetts. In two injury plagues seasons, he appeared in 26 games, compiling a 10-13-1 record with a 3.03 goals against average and .901 save percentage.
Emmet Mahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @EmmetMahon (Emmet Draft412) and on Instagram @emmetmmahon