Pittsburgh Penguins enter key stretch of their season

Tristan Jarry #35 of the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)
Tristan Jarry #35 of the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading into a period of the season that will not only determine this season’s fate but perhaps the shape the team takes over the next few years. Currently sitting outside the final playoff spot in the East, the month of March will be crucial to the direction GM Ron Hextall steers this ship.

Coming off of three games in four days, the Penguins will have to rest up before starting a key three game set with the Philadelphia Flyers beginning Tuesday night. Philadelphia sits two points up on Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot but has two games in hand on the Pens. This weekend will bring another three games in four days grind with Thursday and Saturday at home with the Flyers before the New York Rangers come calling on Sunday.

With the games coming fast this month, the Pens will have minimal time between most games as the compressed schedule continues to provide obstacles for most teams. The recent return of Jared McCann is a much needed boost to the attack. A return from defenseman Brian Dumoulin and center Evan Rodrigues would be a tremendous help during this time, but their timetable to be back is still up in the air.

The silver lining to the schedule is the Penguins get to play 20 of their last 36 games against the bottom three in the division. With eight games each against the Sabres and the Devils, fans should feel confident about being able to maximize point totals. The Bruins are still on the schedule six times, but the Capitals only appear twice, making the Pens’ run in towards the playoffs a bit more manageable compared to the teams they are chasing.

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If the Penguins keep pace, Hextall may stand pat or make a minor addition by the April 12th trade deadline. With two months of watching the team play, he should have a good idea of what tinkering needs to be done. Another scoring option is most likely top of the current list, especially one who can help on the power play. If Dumoulin is not expected back until later, then a veteran defenseman may also be in the viewfinder. The Penguins are unlikely to make a major move of any kind. With cap space constraints, lack of picks and high end prospects, they are not in a position to swing for the fences.

By the end of March, if the boys in black have lost ground, then Hextall might begin the first steps in reshaping the look of this roster. If this direction takes hold, then there will bound to be some interesting names finding their way into trade rumors. One would think Bryan Rust would find himself in demand. With a $3.5 million cap hit and only a year remaining on his contract, Rust is the type of top six forward contending teams look for to get them over the top. Whether management would entertain offers for him or even players like Letang or Malkin is unknown, but with Hextall calling the shots, anything could happen.

Another situation to keep tabs on will be how long of a leash Hextall will give Mike Sullivan if things go south. With his contract running through the 2022-2023 season and two Cups under his belt, it would be expected he would be given the benefit of the doubt. With Montreal’s recent firing of Claude Julien though, this season has shown to expect the unexpected. Burke and Hextall may want a different voice leading the locker room, and a fall down the standings may provide the opportunity for a change.

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When April rolls around, we should all have a clearer picture of what this team is. Whether a Cup contender, playoff hopeful or team on the downturn, the sprint to the end of the season should be very telling about the direction this franchise will be heading come the off-season.