The Pittsburgh Penguins have already started making moves in what could be the most polarizing offseason in franchise history. Bryan Rust was re-upped for a six-year deal, but questions still loom over two of the franchise's biggest stars of the era in Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Where does that leave trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rakell?
Rakell was brought over in exchange for a second-round draft pick, goaltending prospect Calle Clang, and a pair of depth forwards on expiring contracts in Dom Simon and Zach Aston-Reese.
His time in Pittsburgh was successful after the trade, highlighted by a two-week stretch in which he moved up to the top forward line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
In 19 games with the team, Rakell scored four goals and 13 points while excelling on the Penguins top line. His stick-handling and puck protection were a perfect fit alongside one of the best in those categories in Crosby. Unfortunately, he couldn't help the team much in the postseason after a Ryan Lindgren hit took him out of the series in the first period of the opening game. Rakell returned in Game 7 but couldn't find the net, despite outshooting the New York Rangers 6-1 while on the ice.
Rakell expressed his desire to return to Pittsburgh after the playoff loss.
"This is definitely a place I would like to come back to," Rakell said. "I think I can take my game to the next level."
He's as aware as everyone else in knowing the business decisions facing Penguins management this offseason, and he could be on the wrong end of it.
With the Penguins prioritizing Malkin and Letang moving forward, it leaves less room for a player like Rakell to return without him taking a pay cut. Coming off of a contract in which Rakell made $3.7m per season, it is realistic to expect that he could be searching for a contract in the neighborhood of $4-$5 million per season moving forward.
If his desire to return to Pittsburgh has him willing to take a pay cut, the Penguins could make a deal. However, that would also mean the Penguins potentially having to move on from players like Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, and Kasperi Kapanen. If the Penguins fail to re-sign either Malkin or Letang, the door would be open for Rakell to return without taking as much of a pay cut.
If the Penguins bring him back, Rakell slots into the Penguins top six. He could either re-form the line with Crosby and Guentzel or bump down to the second line with Jason Zucker and one of Evgeni Malkin or potentially a free agent center acquisition.
The question to ask about Rakell is whether or not his late-season performance is sustainable?
Before the 2021-22 season, Rakell had a dip in production, scoring under 20 goals for three straight seasons. Part of that can be attributed to him playing on an Anaheim Ducks team that struggled as a whole in that department, but it is fair to question whether or not he could maintain the pace he set for himself at the end of this season.
Recent late-season acquisitions that have returned the following season have not fared well in that category.
Zucker scored six goals and 12 points in 15 games before the NHL shut down due to COVID-19. Since then, he has dealt with numerous injuries and has been unable to produce while in the lineup. He has scored only 17 goals and 35 points in the two seasons since that hot start and has done so while on a $5.5 million contract.
Jeff Carter suffered a similar regression in his first full season in Pittsburgh. Carter set an unrealistic standard by scoring nine goals in 14 games to end last season and followed it up with four goals in six games in the postseason. This season Carter got off to a hot start, but his production fell off as time went on throughout the season.
While it doesn't necessarily mean Rakell will have the same regression, recent history is not favorable to players in his position. Rakell wouldn't be the first player in the Crosby era to walk after a successful short stint with the team. Players like Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla were in the same position but chose to move on instead of returning to the Penguins.
In his end-of-year press conference, Penguins general manager Ron Hextall spoke about those upcoming decisions.
"It's a puzzle right now and I wish we had more pieces in place," Hextall said. "... We have numerous outlines of teams that we would like to bring in, and obviously the numbers matter."
Only time will tell if Rakell's name ended up on one of those outlines.
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