Who could help the Penguins up front?

Right now the Pittsburgh Penguins are in something of a “hold on” type of mode. Just waiting for some key players to return from injury. Waiting for the trade deadline to draw closer and see the market break more free than it’s been. Hold on mode isn’t very fun, and by now over halfway through the season, Ron Hextall knows enough to know what he needs to do to help the team.

Despite cries and pleas that Hextall has been too inactive (which of course aren’t unfounded), the general manager has added to the Penguins during the season before. Last year it was Rickard Rakell. The year prior it was Jeff Carter. And while Carter’s contract extension didn’t work out, both of those trade moves did.

This time around, Hextall’s focus clearly should be on re-shaping his third line, which isn’t much of a third line at all these days. Carter has bombed out, Kasperi Kapanen was given third line money but isn’t playing third line minutes. The Pens badly need secondary scoring to help balance their team and stay afloat when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both on the bench.

The salary cap is a problem, an inactive trade market is the problem, but inaction for the Penguins would also be a major problem as well. Who could some trade targets be? The Athletic swept across the league and came up with some names, which is a good place to start.

It is unlikely that the Penguins will be running and gunning to seriously try and acquire any of the top-end players, and therefore not much of a good use of time. Those like Bo Horvat, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Timo Meier aren’t fits in Pittsburgh through their high salaries and also trade costs that Pittsburgh would be hesitant to pay. Besides, the Pens don’t currently need to bring in top-of-the-lineup forwards. Their big stars are all in place and doing well as it is, their most likely targets are the attainable ones that play a little further down the roster. Such as:

Ivan Barbashev (STL): whom the Athletic called “the sort of useful, all-situations, playoff-experienced utility forward who could help almost any team looking for a steady third-line contributor”. And seriously, you probably couldn’t create a more perfect description to fit on what the Penguins need any better than that if you tried. Barbashev can play center or wing, and is in the Jared McCann/Evan Rodrigues type of sweet spot for a player who isn’t a marquee, front-line team cornerstone but sure can heat up and help out a lot. Barbashev, 27, fits on age and his contract ($2.5m) is favorable as well.

One issue is that the Blues are only four points out of a playoff spot, and not likely to give up and become a seller just quite yet. But this aa player and situation definitely worth monitoring as one who could add much scoring punch for the Penguins and would be worth the wait, should St. Louis fall out of the playoff push in the next four-six weeks and look to move some veterans .

Gustav Nyquist (CBJ): “He is a versatile, experienced forward who can play both the left and right side. He has modest scoring totals — 18 points, all at even strength, so far — but he has been almost a point-a-game player in the last couple of weeks,” per The Athletic. But a $5.5 million cap hit could complicate matters, as well as the fact that the Blue Jackets and Penguins rarely coordinate on deals.

Max Domi (WHO): With 30 points in 42 games this season, Domi has opened some eyes with his performance in Chicago. Last year he was a deadline flip from Columbus to Carolina for a prospect drafted in the third round. Domi has some positional flexibility and if Mario Lemieux was still the primary owner, the personal connections to his good buddy Tie Domi might have been more in play.

Jordan Greenway (MIN): “An acquiring team could still look at him with scout’s eyes. He should be much better than he has been,” says The Athletic is the hulking 6’6”, 235 power forward who only has two goals on the season. One negative is that Pittsburgh and Minnesota are awful trade partners. A reputable Minnesota source called “bs” on a potential trade between the two teams being close, if the Wild look to move Greenway (and his $3.0 million contract for next season) it will likely be to achieve some cap relief for the future. The Pens are about the last team that can offer that right now.

Lars Eller (WSH): This clearly won’t happen where the Pens and Caps directly make a major trade, but just for on-ice fits, this would help Pittsburgh greatly, in the very unlikely event to pull off a Mark Streit 2.0 situation. “The 33-year-old Eller is big — 6-foot-2, 215 pounds — strong and has playoff experience, so he checks a lot of important boxes. He’s on an expiring contract at $3.5 million. Washington, I’m told, would entertain offers for him if it could get help on defense”. Eller has been a recent healthy scratch, Washington has too many forwards now and not enough defensemen. The Penguins are probably the opposite and need a functional center and will have too many defenders soon. It’s a shame the two are rivals and won’t work together on the surface, which likely makes Eller an impossibility for the Pens in the short-term.

There’s just over six weeks until the trading deadline and some teams are in wait and see mode. The Penguins should look to switch gears a little sooner than that based on the performance and staleness of their forward group. If Hextall can thread the needle of the salary cap and acquisition cost of what to give up, he could find a way to give the Pens a boost that should steady their team with a new look for their lower lines.

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