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Trade Now, Sign Later Approach Could Work Again for Penguins

With the NHL trade deadline looming, the Penguins are increasingly employing more forward-thinking approaches to the acquisition of future stars.

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The Penguins are on a roll and the NHL trade deadline is fast approaching — concurrent developments that must conspire to create compelling conversations between head coach Mike Sullivan, general manager Jim Rutherford, assistant general manager Bill Guerin and anyone else associated with the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions who has a say in whether or not trades are made.

On one hand, even a team that’s gone 16-4-1 in its last 21 games could use an influx of depth in advance of Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline (if not another weapon) to best position itself for another Cup run.

On the other hand, mortgaging another significant chunk of the Pens’ future for something that will arrive without any type of guarantee is something a prudent organization should think at least twice about.

As the Penguins ponder their options — and the difficulty of securing a third straight Cup — they’d be wise to consider what’s already been working.

Which brings us to rookie winger Zach Aston-Reese.

“He’s just a real good hockey player,” Sullivan assessed on Sunday night in Columbus, after Aston-Reese had scored his fourth NHL goal in his eighth NHL game.

He’s been compared to another real good hockey player, Patric Hornqvist, ever since the Penguins signed Aston-Reese as a free agent out of Northeastern last spring.

He’s one of the latest examples of what has become a trendy cache of potential assets annually available to NHL teams: college players who somehow slipped through their draft-eligible years without being selected, or declined to sign with the teams that originally drafted them before the drafting team’s exclusive rights to them expired.

The Penguins have recognized the advantages associated with acquiring talent in such a fashion, and they’ve been all-in.

They don’t always get their man. Boston College’s Kevin Hayes ended up with the Rangers in 2014, as did Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey in 2016. North Dakota’s Drake Caggiula ultimately landed in Edmonton in 2016 and Denver’s Will Butcher resurfaced with New Jersey in 2017.

But Aston-Reese was one of the most coveted college free agents last season, and the Penguins were able to entice him into their organization, as they had the likes of Conor Sheary, Ethan Prow and Thomas DiPauli in recent seasons.

Such players are signed to entry-level contracts that are capped, so expensive bidding wars for their services never materialize.

They’re usually more interested in opportunity than economics — in how long it might take them to actually make it to the NHL, and in winning.

The Penguins have had the latter covered, but they’ve developed an enthusiastic recruiting pitch, anyway.

It includes a video featuring former Cup-winning winger and current radio color analyst Phil Bourque extolling the virtues of the Pens’ winning tradition, their rabid fan base, the current team, staff and management, the rink, the practice facility and the number of Penguins alumni who continue to call Pittsburgh home after they’re done playing.

It makes for a compelling argument.

And there’s more where Aston-Reese came from.

That’s one reason why the Pens could include a No. 1 pick in the acquisition of Ryan Reaves and not succumb to buyer’s remorse.

And that’s why no amount of draft picks or prospects should be considered off limits if the type of deal that Rutherford really wants materializes prior to Monday’s deadline.

Picks and prospects, as the Pens have discovered, can be replaced. But legitimate chances to take a run at the Cup are precious, and should never be wasted.

The Pens’ challenges at present are to maximize their current opportunity and to keep an eye on how the organization is shaping up down the road.

There’s no reason they can’t do both.


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