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Penguins Perspectives: Examining the Penguins fall from contender to out of the playoffs

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Welcome to Penguins Perspectives, a weekly column by KDKA-TV Digital Producer Patrick Damp. Each Friday, Patrick will talk about the week that was, the week to come, what to watch for, and more.

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - As the Pittsburgh Penguins appear poised to miss a second straight Stanley Cup Playoffs, we have to take a look back at the decisions and moments that put them into this position. 

For the last week, I've been digging into a lot of transactions, signings, and statistics to get a full look at how this team went from still being among the best in the league to now being unable to clinch a playoff spot in a league where half the teams make the cut. 

We obviously know what a disastrous two years this franchise endured under the management of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke. Yes, the team made the playoffs in the COVID-19-shortened season as well as the first full season back, but ultimately missed in Hextall and Burke's final year. 

Now, the Penguins are somehow, despite a pretty big facelift this past summer, set to miss the playoffs by more points than they did last season. 

Without further ado, let's get into some of the decisions that have led us to this point. 

Three Trades That Undid The Penguins

Last season, in this column's inaugural season, it was not uncommon to use this space to lament the way things were going in what became Hextall's final season. There were plenty of reasons to doubt his vision and what he did to the roster. 

However, in looking back there are three trades that specifically hurt the prospects of this franchise winning a fourth Stanley Cup with its core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. 

I am going to add the caveat: there are no guarantees the stats in these moves would've been the same had these players remained in Pittsburgh. 

Let's start with the first. 

Penguins acquire a 2023 7th-round pick and prospect Filip Hallander from Toronto in exchange for Jared McCann

This trade was made as the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft was looming and it appeared the Seattle Kraken were going to target Jared McCann off of the Penguins roster. Ultimately, they did, but from Toronto. 

However, the Penguins' logic was they did not want to lose such a valuable asset for nothing. Remember, there is no compensation for an expansion team picking one of your players - the only way you can get assets from the expansion franchise is to make a preemptive trade with them under the handshake agreement that will not take the player in question. 

It was also, unconfirmed but often spoken about, that the Penguins knew Jeff Carter, acquired a couple of months prior via trade with the Los Angeles Kings, would only play for the Penguins or otherwise retire. 

To get a big contract off of the books in Brandon Tanev, the Penguins exposed him for the expansion draft and protected Carter - sending McCann to Toronto. 

Now, let's take a look at what was lost. 

Jared McCann (with Seattle): 92 goals, 75 assists, 167 points
Filip Hallander (with Pittsburgh): 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points. 

As Jared McCann continues to produce at a high level for the Kraken at age 27, Hallander is no longer an NHL entity and playing back in Sweden. 

That gives the Penguins a -167-point differential as a result of the move. 

On to the second trade. 

Penguins acquire Jeff Petry and Ryan Poehling from Montreal in exchange for Mike Matheson and a 2023 fourth-round pick

Mike Matheson, while imperfect, appeared to be a perfect fit for the Penguins' system. His contract was a little bloated, but he experienced plenty of success with the team. 

In two seasons with the club, Matheson scored 16 goals and 47 points across 118 games. 

As far as depth scoring from the blue line goes, that's solid production, even if he cost $4.875M against the salary cap. 

Again, while flawed, the logic was that Montreal was on his modified no-movement clause, and getting that money off of the books would help. They also held out hope that Petry could come close to his production. 

Let's take a look. 

Matheson (with Montreal): 16 goals, 61 assists, 77 points
Petry/Poehling (with Pittsburgh): 12 goals, 33 assists, 45 points. 

Once again, the Penguins find themselves in the minus column, this time to the tune of -32. 

Just two days later, the Penguins would make another trade to reshape their defense. 

Penguins acquire defenseman Ty Smith and a 2023 third-round pick from New Jersey in exchange for John Marino

John Marino was an injection of youth for the Penguins, the then-25-year-old recorded 25 points with the club that previous season, and while his game was slightly starting to fade near the end of his tenure, that was expected as he had only played a career-high of 56 games prior to that year. After 81 games, fatigue on a young player is expected. 

The hope for the Penguins was that Smith could fill the same role as Marino. He was younger, had similar NHL experience, and his top-line numbers were solid, scoring seven goals and 36 assists in just 114 games. 

That never came to fruition. 

Marino (with New Jersey): 8 goals, 30 assists, 38 points
Smith (with Pittsburgh): 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points 

Across three trades, the Penguins found themselves losing 116 goals, 166 assists, and 282 points. In return, they would only get 13 goals, 36 assists, and 49 points. That ends up with a differential of -233. 

As I said, there's no guarantee those players would've recorded the same production had they not been let go, but seeing what they got in return makes it a very sobering proposition. 

Letting Good Talent Leave

It wasn't just trades that began to drive the Penguins off of the road, it was who they didn't sign compared to who they did under Hextall. 

For this section, I'm going to focus on three players the Penguins opted to not re-sign and who they hoped would replace them. 

First, let's start with those who left via free agency, or in the case of one of them, left via the expansion draft. Those three players are Frederick Gaudreau, Even Rodrigues, and Brandon Tanev. 

In their time with the Penguins, their numbers don't jump off of the page, but for the roles they played as depth players, it was valuable. 

Gaudreau: 2 goals, 8 assists, 10 points in 19 games
Rodrigues: 27 goals, 31 assists, 58 points in 124 games
Tanev: 18 goals, 23 assists, 41 points in 100 games 

That's a total of 47 goals, 62 assists, and 109 points. 

In hopes of getting better depth production, the Penguins attempted to replace their production with Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brock McGinn. 

Now, when you compare their production with the Penguins, the Penguins do come out better, albeit not by much, but it did - by pure statistics - work out. 

Heinen: 26 goals, 29 assists, 55 points in 141 games
Kapanen: 18 goals, 34 assists, 52 points in 122 games
McGinn: 22 goals, 16 assists, 38 points in 124 games 

The Penguins come out on top, getting 36 more net points than they did with Gaudreau, Rodrigues, and Tanev, but it's when you look at what those three have done since they did not return to the Penguins. 

Gaudreau: 36 goals, 57 assists, 93 points
Tanev: 30 goals, 29 assists, 59 points
Rodrigues: 25 goals, 49 assists, 74 points 

That gives them 226 points since leaving the Penguins. 

Does that mean maybe there's some kind of flaw in the way the Penguins play or utilize some talent? That's entirely possible and should be explored by Kyle Dubas and management this offseason, even with an extension set to kick in for Mike Sullivan. 

Speaking of Kyle Dubas…

The Depth Remains Shallow 

Without getting into some of the contracts and no-movement clauses on the books for the Penguins, Kyle Dubas had a formidable task ahead of him taking over on June 1, 2023. 

The Penguins' core was aging but was still productive. However, they are no longer a group of players that can paper over every deficiency like they once could many moons ago. 

His first big move, outside of free agency signings (which we will get to in just a second), should be lauded. Acquiring Erik Karlsson was a masterclass in asset management. He was able to erase a lot of the mistakes of his predecessor in one move - moving out contracts such as Mikael Granlund, Jan Rutta, Jeff Petry, and Casey DeSmith. 

He also gave up a prospect that was fading in Nathan Legare and a 2025 second-round pick. 

In return, the reigning Norris Trophy winner came to Pittsburgh. 

Now, it's what Dubas has done away from that and it's been hard to watch. 

Let's go with the good first - re-signing Tristan Jarry to a five-year contract was a risk, but as he continues to provide steady play and leads the NHL in shutouts, it's a nice piece of business. Bringing in Alex Nedeljkovic on a one-year deal has paid dividends, Finally, Lars Eller has been a nice piece of the roster on a two-year deal, scoring 12 goals and 21 points. 

Now for the bad. 

The first and most obvious is Ryan Graves. While he was overpaid regardless, that's the price of business on July 1, you always pay more than market value in free agency. However, a six-year deal with an AAV of $4.5M has become an anchor on the Penguins salary cap and his value to be traded. He also has a 12-team no-trade list in his deal. 

There also have been moves around the margin that have not been good. Matt Nieto signed a two-year deal and hasn't stayed healthy, Noel Acciari is also unable to stay healthy and has a 3-year deal. 

Finally, you add in the waiver claims of John Ludvig, Jansen Harkins, and Matthew Phillips, and none of those three players have cracked even 5 points. 

When you look at 10 players Kyle Dubas has brought in from the outside, it doesn't get much better. 

Those ten names are Noel Acciari, Emil Bemstrom, Lars Eller, Ryan Graves, Jansen Harkins, Erik Karlsson, John Ludvig, Matt Nieto, Matthew Phillips, and Jesse Puljujarvi. 

When you combine their statistics you get 29 points, 62 assists, and 91 points. 

It only gets slightly better when you factor in Reilly Smith who has scored 10 goals, and 15 assists for 25 points. 

Yes, Kyle Dubas had an absolute mess to clean up, but so far, it's not been much better, in fact, it's been a little worse. 

This coming trade deadline and the offseason will be crucial when it comes to maybe getting one last run out of the big three, now the big four because the talent is still there. 

Between the big four of Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin, you get 63 goals, 125 assists, and 188 points. The talent remains, but the supporting cast has to be better. 

If recent trends continue and this team cannot find a supporting cast to help this team when the four of those players falter, it could be the end of a seriously productive era. 

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