In a strong response to a rule change for the 2015-16 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins put themselves in a position to dominate the league during the new three-on-three overtime sessions on Wednesday.
That’s easily the best thing about the blockbuster trade pulled off by Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford that landed electric winger Phil Kessel in a six-player, three-pick exchange with the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to NHL.com, the Leafs retained $1.25 million of Kessel’s $8 million cap hit over the next seven years.
Sabotaged in recent years by a lack of depth scoring, the Penguins somehow found a way to make their team even top-heavier while giving up a conditional first-round pick, per the team's official website.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel should do an excellent job of earning the Penguins that extra point in overtime. They will bring excitement on any and all power-play situations and will put up glorious numbers, as Kessel will finally have an elite center and Crosby/Malkin will finally have an elite winger.
With Nick Spaling going to Toronto as the only roster player leaving Pittsburgh, the Penguins are again left with the depth issues that have plagued them since former GM Ray Shero was whiffing on draft picks on a regular basis in the years after taking Jordan Staal with the second pick in 2006.
When the Penguins were bounced in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final by the Bruins, they scored two total goals in four games. In 2014, when they blew a 3-1 second-round series lead against the Rangers, they failed to get a single goal from a bottom-six forward in seven games.
Last season, an injury-depleted blue line was the bigger issue, but the Penguins spent most of the season sticking Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and Spaling next to Crosby and Malkin.
Here’s what the Penguins look like up front at this juncture:
|Penguins projected forwards, 2015-16|
|Left wing||Center||Right wing|
|Chris Kunitz||Sidney Crosby||Patric Hornqvist|
|David Perron||Evgeni Malkin||Phil Kessel|
|Pascal Dupuis||Brandon Sutter||Beau Bennett|
|as of 2 p.m. ET on July 1|
That’s a disgustingly loaded top six—without question the best in the NHL. When opponents face the Penguins, they will have to pick their poison when it comes to icing their top defensive pairing. No matter how the Penguins choose to disperse their top-six forwards, it will be a nightmare in the regular season.
But how is Rutherford going to ice a bottom six that won’t resemble a dumpster fire?
After this trade, the Penguins have about $6.5 million in cap space (Spotrac hasn't accounted for Spaling's departure yet). With that money, the team needs to add three forwards, perhaps a fourth if it doesn't get a deal done with restricted free agent Beau Bennett.
The Penguins also need to add at least one more defenseman and maybe a second, depending on whether Rutherford wants another veteran to go with what will be an extremely young blue line next season. They require a backup goaltender as well.
Kessel might score 60 goals next season. The Penguins' bottom six might score six goals.
Championship teams, year after year, get there with a mix of stars and a supporting cast that does a little something.
The Lightning got all the way to the Stanley Cup Final based on the power of their top-six forwards, but it was the work of Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw that made the difference for the star-laden Blackhawks.
The Penguins are the store-brand version of the Lightning.
There's also a weird dynamic with the Penguins, who are going young and cheap on defense while going top-heavy on offense. It's as if the Penguins are going through a rebuild at one end of the bench and going all in on a championship at the other end. It should produce a lot of 5-4 games with the Penguins winning most of them.
It's an especially risky and maybe even unnecessary gamble. Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, the team's two best defensemen, have dealt with serious health issues over the past year.
Letang is especially worrisome, as he is coming off his fourth concussion since 2012 and could be one more hit away from having his career and long-term health put at risk—not unlike Ryane Clowe of the New Jersey Devils last season.
When Rutherford took this job last year, he was handed the keys to a car that was only a few thousand miles from needing an overhaul to the transmission and engine.
Instead, he sold the backseats and put the money toward a really cool racing stripe on the side. Yeah, it looks neat as it races around town, but you'd never rely on it to drive you across the country without breaking down.
It's July 1 and the season doesn't begin for three months, so there's time for the Penguins to address their depth issues.
Even if they fail to do so, the Penguins are set up to be a fun, exciting regular-season machine that should cruise to a playoff spot.
But when it's mid-April, the competition is better and they need something out of a line centered by Brandon Sutter or whomever to win a playoff series or two, the Penguins are going to find themselves lamenting the perpetually closing Stanley Cup windows of Crosby and Malkin.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.