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Penguins Perspectives: Stuck in the middle with you

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

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – In the National Hockey League, there's one place you never want to be and that is the mushy middle.

The Pittsburgh Penguins since about 2007 have not been in the mushy middle.

Whether it was Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, and Staal coming into their primes, injuries derailing an otherwise great team, or the Penguins hitting on all cylinders to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, the past 15 or so years have seen the Penguins somewhere near the top of the table.

Sure, there were playoff disappointments and circumstances that have kept them at only three championships – sidebar, don't lose sight of how incredible that is, not a lot of franchises can boast anything close to that – but since the advent of high-definition television, the Penguins have been one of the NHL's best.

The way the NHL works these days is actually not that unfamiliar of a process. You build your team through the draft by getting top-end talent and then using your farm system or free agency or trades to build the supporting cast.

Once that core ages out or no longer are effective, you start that process over by finishing low in the standings and stockpiling picks and prospects.

We've seen the Penguins, the Maple Leafs, the Blackhawks, the Lightning, and on and on, use this to get themselves to the pinnacle of the sport.

Right now, the Penguins find themselves in the mushy middle.

Essentially, what that means is the team is not good enough to be a serious Stanley Cup contender but not bad enough to fall low in the standings, giving them a middle-of-the-road draft pick.

Now, a 2023 NHL Entry Draft pick will most likely not end up making a difference in the twilight of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang's careers, barring someone being way ahead of schedule.

Another way to find yourself in the mushy middle is to have contracts that are either unmovable or have an inflated value.

At this juncture, that describes the Pittsburgh Penguins.

While the Penguins are getting a tremendous return on investment at the top of the roster with players such as Crosby, Malkin, Rust, Guentzel, and Rakell making less than their market value, it's the depth pieces that are causing headaches both on the ice and on the salary cap.

Players such as Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, Brock McGinn, and Jan Rutta are being paid too much while doing too little.

A great visualization of this can be found on The Athletic thanks to Dom Luszczyszyn and Shayna Goldman's player card project.

Simply put, their analytics put a monetary value on a player and compares their contract to the market value.

Those players above find themselves making around a million or more dollars than their comparables.

This is the mushy middle teams want to avoid because right now, as the Penguins battle for a playoff spot in order to keep their record of postseason berths alive, they aren't quite a true contender, and they sure aren't one of the league's worst.  

Here's where we may see some positivity, though.

This offseason could be a big opportunity to figure out where the Penguins want to go over the final few years of the Crosby, Malkin, and Letang era.

The team is set to have six unrestricted free agents this offseason and they'll have a shade over $17 million coming off of the books. With restricted free agents and other dead money decreasing, the Penguins will have just under $20 million to play with this offseason.

They also, at the time of writing this, have picks in rounds 1-3 and 5-7, a total of eight picks in the upcoming draft.

As stated above, a 2023 NHL Entry Draft pick will likely not play any type of significant role in the immediate as this team heads into the twilight of its golden era.

However, with players like Kapanen, Carter, and McGinn on expiring deals next year, those picks could be used as sweeteners to move those deals off of the books. As the team hopes to re-sign a player like Jason Zucker and make crucial decisions on what to do with the likes of Tristan Jarry, maximizing cap space and flexibility will be crucial.

This year will likely be a write-off.

Either they're going to make the playoffs and be an early exit or they'll miss and have to pick earlier in the draft than they have since Crosby's earliest days.

For the Penguins' front office, if they're wondering what it is they should do, they've got picks to the left and contracts to right – so smile, because, for not much longer, they shouldn't be stuck in the middle with you. 

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