Penguins’ uncertain future sans Guentzel

Michael O’Grady | Staff Writer

The Penguins all but called it quits on this season last week. On the eve of the NHL Trade Deadline, goal-scoring winger Jake Guentzel was dealt to their Metro Division rival Carolina Hurricanes, placing Pittsburgh in an unsteady position regarding their future.

The 29-year-old Guentzel has been fantastic playing next to Sidney Crosby since his debut in 2016, notching 40 goals twice in six full seasons. A well-known playoff performer, Guentzel has 58 playoff points to match 58 playoff games and had a record-tying 21 points as a rookie in the 2017 playoffs to help win the Penguins a fifth Stanley Cup.

Already, he has made his mark on the Hurricanes, totaling eight points in five games.

Pittsburgh’s season never got on the right track, and starting in January, rumors emerged that Penguins General Manager Kyle Dubas could trade the pending free agent Guentzel in an effort to get younger players and somewhat replenish Pittsburgh’s prospect pipeline. Years of trading assets for win-now pieces has left the farm system bare, and it is considered by many to be a bottom-10 pool in the league. As the deadline got closer, the Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Vegas Golden Knights reportedly were all in on Guentzel, and Carolina’s offer won out in the end.

Dubas could have swung for the fences regarding a return, but what he fetched back for Pittsburgh seems like more of a bunt. With Guentzel and depth defenseman Ty Smith heading to Raleigh, the Penguins acquired forward Michael Bunting, prospect forward Ville Koivunen, Vasily Ponomarev and Cruz Lucius and two conditional 2024 Draft picks, one first-rounder and one fifth-rounder.

Bunting played under Dubas in Toronto and was a 2022 Calder Trophy finalist, albeit as a 26-year-old. He’s under contract for two more seasons and will immediately replace Guentzel on the first line, but he is undoubtedly a downgrade. Ponomarev is a two-way center struggling to make his mark in the American Hockey League, and Lucius is still in college, leading the University of Wisconsin Badgers in points. Koivunen appears to be the most promising of the bunch — he is nearly a point-per-game player in the top league in his native Finland.

The draft picks are the most head-scratching part of the deal, however. They hinge completely on Carolina winning the Eastern Conference. If that doesn’t happen, the first-rounder turns to a second and the fifth-rounder stays with Carolina. Perhaps the return would have been larger if Guentzel signed an extension with the Hurricanes, but to not receive a guaranteed first rounder for the top-line winger is questionable.

That was not Dubas’s only move of the day. Depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel was flipped to the Rangers for a 2027 fourth-rounder, opening the door for rookie blueliner John Ludvig to see more ice time. Still, the return is less than ideal.

Dubas now finds himself in a strange spot; no other asset on his team, save for Crosby, could have netted a bigger return than Guentzel could have, yet the Penguins don’t seem as if they’ve benefitted.

Dubas will now have to make the tough offseason decision of trading a reportedly unhappy Crosby in a contract year in order to properly start a rebuild.

Other valuable pieces such as Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell and even Erik Karlsson will be difficult contracts to move elsewhere, and at this point other teams won’t be willing to give up much for Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang.

Behind Crosby, the most moveable asset with value now is Marcus Pettersson, but if Guentzel couldn’t turn into much, then Pettersson won’t either. Teams will pay handsomely for Crosby — it comes down to if Dubas makes his franchise player available.

Crosby or no Crosby, Pittsburgh might be in for some lean years ahead, but the only thing they can do right now is hope Carolina makes it out of the war zone that is the East.