Mark Madden: Keeping first-round pick smart for Penguins, who aren’t close enough to compete

As the March 3 trade deadline approaches, locker rooms and fan bases in every NHL city are clamoring for their team to make a deal that will take it to the next level, even a Stanley Cup. False optimism can drive that sentiment even with teams that should be sellers.

It seems like a fitting transition to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Every deal has risk. The Penguins, handicapped by nine full or partial no-move clauses and few easily tradable assets other teams want, would likely have to risk sacrificing more of an already uncertain future.

General manager Ron Hextall says he doesn’t want to trade the Penguins’ first-round draft pick. But what alternative is there?

The wardrobe hopes to be improved. Sidney Crosby hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year. Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin have never done it.

That core of three thinks the Penguins can still win. But it’s Hextall’s job to determine that.

For the Penguins to make a major deal, the minimum expected return should be winning their first-round playoff series. You are trading earnings, not statistics.

That deal doesn’t exist.

Let’s say the Penguins trade their first-round pick and winger Kasperi Kapanen (the latter by way of dumping) for Ivan Barbashev from St. Louis, a solid third-string winger. He is available.

Or step up and trade those assets for St. Louis forward Ryan O’Reilly, who could play any of the top three lines. Or indulge in fantasy and get Chicago winger Patrick Kane, the cream of the rental crop.

(Reality check: The Barbashev deal could be possible. No chance for the other two. The asking price for O’Reilly and especially Kane will be higher.)

Neither of those trades lifts the Penguins to third place in the Metropolitan Division, which would give them a chance to win their first-round playoff series.

Neither of those trades gets the Penguins past a first-round playoff series against giants Boston or Carolina, one of which would almost certainly be the foe if the Penguins get a wild-card berth.

Even Kane wouldn’t be enough. The penguins won’t catch it anyway. But you get the idea.

Heck, the Penguins might not make the playoffs. Check the classification. But I bet they will because neither team chasing them has the power or consistency to catch them.

Given the lack of almost any positive guarantee, no matter who the Penguins get, Hextall shouldn’t change their first-round pick. It wouldn’t be worth it.

In terms of other assets that are desirable and easy to trade, the Penguins have none.

Can the Penguins come together and become the team they think they are and want to be? That seems unlikely. What have we seen this season that points in that direction? They haven’t won a playoff series since 2018.

To stand out, you have to understand what you are. Penguins won’t do that. They think they’re still the high-octane flying circus that won Cups in 2016 and 2017. They’re still trying to play exactly the same.

The Tristan Jarry situation provides a further complication.

The Penguins’ starting goaltender hasn’t played since Jan. 22. He has been sidelined with what the team calls an upper body injury. But Jarry is reported to have developed a chronic hip problem, and his inability to push off correctly because of that hip is putting pressure on him and causing injury elsewhere.

Jarry missed practice Thursday, supposedly to be seen by the doctors. It doesn’t look like he’s going to play anytime soon.

It does not matter to change for third line help. Should getting a goalkeeper be the Penguins’ top priority? Who is out there to get? Nobody cool, that’s for sure.

If Jarry doesn’t return soon and stay in the lineup, it’s a lost season.

Don’t trade that first-round pick. The Penguins can’t win enough now. Reconstruction is near and it will be difficult. Don’t make it longer and harder.

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