Penguins’ Kasperi Kapanen contract, Evgeni Malkin at wing, Big 3 statue: Mailbag

Penguins’ Kasperi Kapanen contract, Evgeni Malkin at wing, Big 3 statue: Mailbag

Why, hello.

It’s been more than a while since you, the dear readers, and I have had a chance to mailbag it up. Not quite long enough, though, for “mailbag” to be used as a verb going forward.

Anyway, with so many questions to pick from (thanks, everyone), I want to get into the answers. But first…

No, I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the Penguins’ contract with Kasperi Kapanen. I’ve tried. And based on the many questions about Kapanen’s contract I received, it’s clear many of you are grappling with it as well.

A two-year commitment at $3.2 million annually to a winger who appears to lack an identifiable fit on the roster was and remains a head-scratching decision by GM Ron Hextall. However, Hextall has mostly had a good offseason, so perhaps it’s best to trust him on the Kapanen front.

So, to avoid each and every question being about Kapanen, allow me this theory on the signing:

The Penguins believe their optimal third line includes Jason Zucker and Jeff Carter, in part because Zucker has shown well with Carter and has not appeared to click as hoped with Evgeni Malkin. Also, if Zucker and Malkin were injured while on the same line, as is possible given their injury histories, the Penguins would need to adjust their second line more than if Zucker and Malkin weren’t playing together at even strength.

Enter Kapanen, who, at least in his first season, showed some chemistry with Malkin.

If Kapanen is the third option as right winger on a second line centered by Malkin, recently-extended Rickard Rakell could play the left wing on that line. Sure, this goes against what I forecasted in The Athletic’s first roster projections, but NHL life changes like the title of a certain Vin Diesel auto film franchise. Alas, so will roster projections. The new projection for forward lines:

New forwards depth chart

left wing

Center

right-wing

First line

Jake Guentzel

Sidney Crosby

Bryan Rust

second line

Rickard Rakell

Evgeny Malkin

Kasperi Kapanen

third line

jason zucker

Jeff Carter

Danton Heinen

Fourth line

Brock McGinn

Teddy Blueger

Ryan Poehling

Extras

Radim Zohorna

Drew O’Connor

Josh Archibald

New slot

Now, let’s get to some questions!

How upset is Danton Heinen going to be every time he looks over and sees Kapanen and thinks about their salaries? —Ryan J.

Heinen will have a million very good reasons to concentrate on more productive thoughts than jealousy.

Do you agree that Hextall is straddling the fence between winning now and building for the future? After resigning Malkin and Letang it feels like it should be “all” about the next 3 years and not draft picks. The second line is mediocre. The RD on paper looks better, however, the LD is missing a true shutdown defender. It feels like the Pens chance of just making the play-offs has dropped let alone contending. —Dean Y

To be fair, Hextall was hired by previous ownership to straddle that fence. That is one of the reasons Hextall was told the job was essentially a no-win venture by Brian Burke, who advised the Penguins on their GM search before they hired him as hockey operations president.

On paper, the Penguins are a top-three club in the Metropolitan Division. To my eyes, they were at least a second-round club each of the past two seasons if their goaltending had merely been NHL-level adequate. Hextall seems to have assessed this group similarly. So, the notion of keeping the band together to make the playoffs and hope for the best probably isn’t the worst move.

By the way, new ownership, from what I’m told, didn’t want to blow up everything as its first major move in a new market. Hextall wasn’t hired by this ownership group, so he may have felt pressure to abide by those wishes to keep going forward with the group as it was/is. He has a job to keep, too.

When viewed through those realities, this offseason makes a lot of sense, even if reasonable people can disagree with Hextall’s approach.

How do the current management rates PO Joseph? Is he waiver exempt still? —Jonathan D.

My read on POJ is that management feels he lacks an edge that would amplify his considerable talent. To be candid, I’d expect him to be among the names we hear floated in any potential trades of left defensemen.

If you look at the players added to the right side on defense this offseason, they’ve each come with some sandpaper to their game. POJ, for all that he brings, does not bring sandpaper.

I need to stop by Home Depot.

Are Hextall and Burke’s hands tied in regards to bringing in bigger wingers Who can play a tough physical game and drop the gloves because Sullivan probably wouldn’t play them? —Wayne I

Actually, those hands are tied more by the lack of those types of wingers available. There are fewer now than at any time I can remember, hence the haul the Panthers surrendered to the Flames for Matthew Tkachuk. The game has changed, and the prototypical power forward is no longer so typical — and is costly to acquire.

The Penguins lack the assets to get in on that game, unless they scout an up-and-coming power forward. It’s just that those players rarely develop how they’re projected.

Did it bother you throughout the Malkin negotiations that folks implied that Geno’s team were using you as a mouthpiece? I mean, obviously we understand the connection, but I found the frequent insinuations offensive. Love your reporting! —Dalton M.

Thanks, Dalton.

Nothing that’s been said, tweeted or implied about my relationship with Malkin bothers me. Mostly, that’s because I don’t expect people on the outside — whether or not they’re in the media or working for a hockey team or reading my articles — to know more about the relationship than me or Evgeni.

We’re not friends.

We do have a very strong professional relationship. He trusts me, and I feel that trust has resulted in many, many stories that have painted a more complete portrait of Evgeni than what’s been out there.

I’ve learned, through a lot of therapy, to take nothing personally when it comes to my job. That’s not easy. But with my diagnosed mental and neurological conditions, I can’t afford to worry about controlling what is out of my control. And what people think is out of my control.

Do you see Malkin transitioning to wing as he gets older? —Douglas EB

Inevitably, and against his true desire, Malkin is going to probably play more on the wing on this four-year contract. Especially if, as I suspect is in the cards, the Penguins are in play for JT Miller next offseason. Miller can play center or on the wing.

Malkin being listed as a winger, or being considered a winger, probably isn’t in the cards. He plays and thinks like a center. But it certainly seems his most efficient use as time goes on would be something similar to his rookie season or during the 2009 postseason, when his center duties were more on offense and he essentially did a winger’s duty on defense.

How much is the war in Ukraine having an effect on Russian players and team decisions? —Cléo H

An awesome lot. And I stress “awful.”

Many Russian players who were impending free agents couldn’t chance going back to Russia because of potential governmental travel issues. Those who have remained in the US and/or Canada for fear of not being able to return from Russia in time for training camp haven’t had a chance to see family and friends for well over a year. Almost every Russian I know is worried about somebody they love being in harm’s way because of the war with Ukraine.

This is uncharted territory for Russian players, and the NHL clubs for which they play. I fear the situation will only grow more complicated.

What can we expect from next Crosby contract (bonus: do you think he’ll find a way to incorporate #87 in his next deal like he did with this one)? —Chris C.

Well, Chris, let’s make sure everybody understands that Sidney Crosby has three seasons remaining on his current contract. And he just pulled a major power play to keep his close friends (Malkin and Kris Letang) in Pittsburgh, for life.

He told Josh Yohe of a desire to play six more seasons. The Penguins’ cap hit for Crosby has been $8.7 million for all but his first three NHL seasons. I don’t see that changing on his next contract, though the structure of how he’s paid will probably be front-loaded, as was the case for his current contract.

However, it’s safe to say that any fear that Crosby wouldn’t finish his career in Pittsburgh went away when the Penguins opted to keep Malkin and Letang.

My idea for the Penguins’ next statue is one featuring Crosby, Malkin and Letang, only with Sid in front. What about it? —Tom M.

Tommy, my man, you’re a genius. That is exactly what should be constructed near the Mario Lemieux statue outside PPG Paints Arena. Here’s hoping Penguins president of business operations Kevin Acklin is reading this mailbag.

Can the Penguins afford to trade one of their left handed D-men? Not from a monetary perspective but from a skill-wise one. —Joe C.

Not from where I sit, Joe.

The Penguins really can’t afford to lose Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson. They need each left-side defenseman to perform as close to peak level as possible if they’re going to contend for the Stanley Cup. If the Penguins get those types of performances, the back end instantly becomes the major strength of this squad.

That’s just too big an “if” to make a call on right now.

Hey Rob! In order to get cap compliant i suggest the following trade archetype: all of our expensive bad players for, wait for it…. all of their good players, preferably on better deals; bonus points if they are local product. Do you know of seven or maybe even 20 examples of imminently probable trade proposals in line with this criteria? —Tim J

Done. In fact, Josh Archibald back to Edmonton for Connor McDavid surely is in the works (I write as I check if it was really creamer in my morning coffee).

Do you think if the Penguins doesn’t make it out of the first round, that Sullivan is fired? —Marissa O

I think Mike Sullivan is one of the best coaches in the NHL and has done masterful work with subtle adjustments, which he doesn’t get credit for often enough. I also think nobody believes in this group of players, at least the core, more than Sullivan.

Still, five consecutive opening-round defeats would be tough for the Penguins to accept, especially if it can’t be blamed on inadequate goaltending.

Are you alive? —Richard B.

Is anybody?

(Photo of Kasperi Kapanen: Gaelen Morse/USA Today)

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