The Penguins’ New Hockey Operations Boss Has Already Mastered a Balancing Act
Getting better in the present may be more difficult than even Kyle Dubas has acknowledged. But the future, too, is looming, as Dubas is apparently well aware.
The challenge is as daunting as it is obvious, improve the Penguins during what’s left of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era but at the same time do what can be done to ensure the eventual end of that era doesn’t coincide with the franchise falling off a cliff.
Ron Hextall couldn’t handle it.
Kyle Dubas apparently gets it.
Granted, Dubas is just getting started.
But his initial forays into player acquisition on Wednesday addressed both sides of that equation.
The trade with Las Vegas for Reilly Smith on Wednesday delivers a better alternative to Jason Zucker. Once free agency commences on Saturday, Zucker will eventually land a deal from someone else, in all likelihood, for more than the $5 million per season the Pens will pay Smith, and for a longer term than the two years Smith has remaining on his current contract.
He’ll be an upgrade and a bargain, both of which should help moving forward.
Dubas also invested down the road on Wednesday night when the Pens held fast at 14th overall on the first round of the NHL Draft and selected 5-foot-11, 166-pound, 18-year-old center Brayden Yager of the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors (it’s always a bonus when you can garner a prospect from a Canadian hamlet named after an animal part).
Another box checked.
As for what will happen starting on Saturday, Dubas is on record suggesting he won’t be out to make headlines in free agency. His stated anticipation is to make “subtle, small bets” rather than a free-agent splash. He intends to rely on “reclamation projects, to an extent” if it comes to that.
And it just might given the Pens’ current circumstances.
But with some cap space for a change (assuming the services of Zucker, Brian Dumoulin and Tristan Jarry aren’t retained), the new director of hockey ops shouldn’t rule out a big get even if it requires a big spend.
Someone who can do a significant share of the heavy lifting rather than merely complement Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
Dubas was presumably referencing those three when he assessed, in retrospect, the team having gotten “great performances out of its core players and still missed (the playoffs)” last season.
Here’s hoping that answer was more politically correct on Dubas’ part than it was from the heart.
Because “great” was overstating it.
Letang was honored with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy this week, which reflected his profound “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication” to the game. But even Letang knows he didn’t have a good season.
“I was never able to get a groove,” he acknowledged as last season came to an end. “For some reason this year was really tough, especially on the personal side.
“I was never really able to get into the groove or mentally be totally there.”
Presumably, Letang won’t have to deal with the “personal side” next season as much as he did this season. But he’s also 36, and he wasn’t a good defensive player before suffering his second stroke and before losing his father.
Letang is on the downside.
Malkin is, too. He lacks the explosiveness he once had and still lacks situational hockey sense, an appreciation of the ramifications of mistakes at a given juncture of a game. The latter accounts for Malkin putting up 83 points in 82 games, and still winding up at minus 12.
He’s not carrying the Penguins on his back to another Stanley Cup, either.
As for Crosby, he worked as hard as ever in 2022-23 and was as dedicated as ever to playing a relentless, two-way game. Crosby still represents and Crosby still resonates.
But after finishing 16th in scoring despite playing all 82 regular-season games and averaging over a point a game (33-60—93), Crosby came in a distant tied for 18th in the balloting for the Hart Trophy (awarded annually to the NHL’s MVP). He was also excluded from being named to either the First or Second NHL All-Star teams (the Pens’ captain finished 11th in the voting for All-Star Center).
That’s what the 196 participating voters from the Professional Hockey Writers Association think of Crosby in relation to the game’s truly elite.
Those three “core players” also had their fingerprints all over a power play that frustrated and disappointed far too often.
In whatever time they have left, they’re going to need all the help they can get.