Penguins go all in at trade deadline

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Bryan Rust, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, faces an uncertain future at the end of this season.

Russell Macias | Staff Writer

March 24, 2022

Despite lofty hopes a season ago, New York Islanders forward Josh Bailey’s double-overtime goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ opening round pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to the brink of another early postseason exit.

Two days later, after one more New York win, Pittsburgh had been eliminated by the Islanders for the second time in three seasons and faced an offseason loaded with questions.

General manager Ron Hextall instilled a belief in core players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He supplemented the core with depth pieces like Danton Heinen, Brian Boyle and Brock McGinn.

This year’s team entered the NHL trade deadline, again, sitting near the top of the Metropolitan Division. With another playoff run imminent, Hextall continued to add to a strong roster, acquiring forward Rickard Rakell from the Anaheim Ducks and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu from the Winnipeg Jets on Monday.

Pittsburgh sent depth forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, in addition to a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and goaltender prospect Calle Clang, to Anaheim. All Bealieu cost was a conditional seventh-round pick.

The Rakell trade feels like a fair price to pay for a forward who fills one of the Penguins’ most-glaring needs. With inconsistent play from Kasperi Kapanen, multiple injuries to Jason Zucker and dry spells from Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues, Rakell provides immediate scoring potential.

In 51 games with Anaheim this season, Rakell recorded 16 goals and 28 points. He was a key part of the Ducks’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2016-17, registering 13 points in 15 postseason games.

As a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) at season’s end, Rakell is purely a rental. With a third Stanley Cup in seven seasons within reach, there’s not much reason for complaining.

He should contribute right away, as the Penguins are jockeying with the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes for seeding in the Metropolitan Division. Rakell joined the Penguins on Tuesday, playing left wing on a line with Carter and Kapanen in a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena.

Beaulieu is currently out with a lower-body injury. At such an inconsequential cost, however, he provides a solid defensive depth option.

This team feels much like the title teams of 2016 and 2017. Tristan Jarry is having a career year and the team’s five main players (Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust) are all contributing around or over a point per game.

The organization needed to be all in at the deadline. Of the five stars, three will become UFAs at season’s end.

Rust, although not currently paired with Crosby, has become one of the captain’s most-consistent linemates since the Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis era. Pittsburgh hopes he’ll take a hometown discount, but his play suggests that he could command well over $7 million a season if he tests the open market.

Malkin and Letang, franchise icons, will also see their contracts expire. Malkin has stated that he has a desire to stay in Pittsburgh, but Letang rumors still swirl. There will simply not be enough money for everyone to stay.

Despite what this city might be accustomed to, consistently competing for a Stanley Cup is difficult, and the clock is ticking on this core.

Monday’s moves suggest that winning now remains the ultimate goal.