Vague Trade Scuttle & Addition by Subtraction

There is vague trade scuttle floating about that Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall is looking into options … just like every other GM. However, for Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman to bring it up on his recent 32 Thoughts podcast probably means there’s a little more heat than average check-ins. The Penguins’ stars are shining, the defensemen are turning around their seasons, and the bottom six lineup is significantly better with the less expensive configuration.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Have a pile of stuffing (not dressing) for me.

1. The Bottom Six shuffle, Kappy Out

It’s not fun to beat up a player who’s already down. That’s for Twitter folks, who seem to revel in the macabre only to add two more cents. However, the Penguins lost Kapanen’s last eight games (0-6-2).

Ouch.

There are no easy answers, or the Penguins would have applied them. Nothing was left to do but make Kapanen and his $3.2 million salary a healthy scratch. The Penguins are not only 4-1-0 since sending Kapanen for press box nachos, but they’ve been a different team. The Penguins have been a defensive-minded (Chicago notwithstanding) team that has gotten production from their bottom two lines.

Brock McGinn was the third-line replacement for Kapanen on the Jeff Carter line, and the game is dramatically different. How many Grade A chances did the line have on Wednesday night? five. They are allowed none. ]

The resurgent line has also benefited from a better fourth line. Teddy Blueger, Josh Archibald, and Ryan Poehling have created offensive zone time to pass off to Sidney Crosby and defend the opponent’s top line, saving some wear and tear on Crosby.

Gee willikers, Crosby has been filling the stat sheet and was the NHL’s No. 1 star.

“That line has established an identity with our team, just as far as how we deploy them,” Sullivan said. “We have ultimate trust in that line and their ability to defend. They get a lot of (defensive)-zone starts to play against other teams’ top lines if we need them to, and they do a really good job for us. They chipped in offensively on this latest road trip, which is even more of a bonus.”

It seems like Sullivan pulled the plug. Barring injury, Kapanen is a spectator; it’s a bewildering turnabout for a player whose rights were the subject of a trade bidding war.

2. D-Men Rebound Bodes Very, Very Well

The defensemen were a bit of a mess during their seven-game winless streak. Trainwreck might be more apt. Brian Dumoulin was getting beaten like a rented mule. Jeff Petry often zigged when he should have zagged. Kris Letang was making more errors.

Marcus Pettersson is the standout defenseman and is on the top pairing. Who saw that coming?

Pettersson’s confident emergence, combined with Petry jelling, and Dumoulin is working the third-pair role well with Jan Rutta. Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden have created a stout defensive corps.

On Wednesday night, Dumoulin and Rutta were able to keep Calgary out of the crease. Tristan Jarry saw more shots and made more saves.

Just like the bottom six, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ pieces of the puzzle were there. Sullivan had to figure out where those pesky corner pieces go.

It may not be praiseworthy in a few months. The foundation seems a little shaky, but it’s very good for now.

3. How Much Fun are Crosby and Malkin?

Sidney Crosby’s game is not the same as it was five years ago. Ever the tactician and hockey mind, he’s figured it out. Crosby and Jake Guentzel are even more dynamic than before. They’re making no-look passes on a nightly basis, finding passing lanes that don’t exist and filling the net.

Evgeni Malkin is resurgent. Yes, there’s always the nod to the ever vocal minority of fans who bring the drop passes to nowhere. He does it, yeah. He is also dancing through defenders, pouncing on loose pucks like he badly wants them, and serving scoring chances to Jason Zucker like a truck stop waitress dishes eggs and bacon.

There’s a constant stream, and it looks amazing.

Malkin is moving better. His confidence with the puck and within the game plan is high, too. He’s playing 200 feet. Go figures.

3A: Hello, Jason Zucker.

Zucker is also — finally — exploding on the scoring sheet. He’s healthy, and he’s producing. His point-per-game total has dropped to just below the mark with the recent defensive battles, but Zucker is reading Malkin and ripping shots from between the dots. He and Bryan Rust are also devil dogs on puck retrieval.

If only Zucker’s shots were harder, huh Jagr?

Dave Molinari asked the question — should the Penguins re-sign Zucker now?

The Penguins have not lost a game in regulation (7-0-1), with Rickard Rakell playing with Crosby and Rust playing with Malkin.

Hat tip to fans who were bonkers over the early switch away from those tandems. You had it right.

4. Mike Sullivan is Just Fine

There was some chatter from league sources: Mike Sullivan is done, and “his bag of tricks is empty.” He’s become too trusting, too chummy with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star players, and he could not effectively discipline them.

There was a litany of theories, and the longer that winless streak dragged on, the more plausible those whispers became.

However, even the PK is back in the 80% range.

It seems the reports of Sullivan’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

The Penguins are still missing some ingredients. They could use another spark plug and some jam. The team never seems more than one exhale away from another skid, but putting together a team without much freshness will do that. If Hextall is shopping on the NHL trade market, there’s the starting point.

No, we’re not going to rehash the offseason moves, not even signing Kapanen, though I suspect some of you are already typing. The Penguins’ quarter mark has been a wild ride of steep highs and cavernous lows. It’s better to rise at this point of the season rather than sink.

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