The Penguins escaped a major scare.
Kris Letang was hit awkwardly in a game against the LA Kings. His left leg completely buckled, and he skated slowly off the ice without putting any weight at all on his leg.
Luckily for the Penguins, Letang was listed as “day-to-day,” and he did return to action in the Penguins 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night. On a more positive note, Letang looked to be his normal self. He did not seem bogged down by the injury and did not seem to be holding back at all.
However, the Letang injury scare has to make you think: what if Letang did indeed suffer a long-term serious injury? What would the Penguins do?
The Penguins have to absolutely be in “win now” mode. Despite their overall lackluster play, do not doubt that the core of this team will perform when it needs to. The issue is that the core is getting older and older year after year, and at some point, that window will close as it has on the Blackhawks and Kings.
The Penguins need Letang if they are going to win now. This isn’t 2017 anymore. The defensive corps of the Penguins is not even close to what it was that year, nor are the players performing even close to the way that defensive corps did in 2017.
In addition, Justin Schultz, who essentially became Letang’s replacement in 2017, has been out with a broken leg. He won’t be playing for a while still, and one can only hope that he will return to form when he does return. Even if Schultz comes back and performs at the level that he can and has, he does not bring much to the defensive side of the puck, which is where the Penguins are lacking.
If Letang goes down for a significant time frame, the Penguins can’t afford to rely on the rest of their defensive corps to pick up the slack. Brian Dumoulin is terrific but provides little offensive upside. Schultz can provide a spark to the powerplay, but we don’t know how well he will play after retruning from his broken leg. Olli Maatta is okay, but very slow. Jamie Oleksiak has his games, but has not found a defensive partner that he meshes with. Jack Johnson has mostly been a trainwreck. Juuso Riikola has not shown any of his promise that he showed in the preseason. Chad Ruhwedel is nothing but a solid 7th defenseman.
Unless you can find a convincing argument that these defenseman can lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup this year, this leaves the Penguins with 2 options: trade for a Letang replacement, or completely reconfigure your defense outside of Letang, Dumoulin, and Schultz. The latter can’t happen all in 1 year at 1 trade deadline. The only realistic option in the case of a major Letang injury is to make a major trade for a player to “replace” Letang.
This is not suggesting that the Penguins should attempt to acquire Erik Karlsson, but they should absolutely look into acquiring a guy that can be a solid #1 or #2 defenseman who can play on both sides of the puck. It might cost you prospects, picks, and a current player, but the Penguins need to win now. It is a risk that a team like the Penguins might have to take.
The key is to find an elite defenseman on a team that is close to or currently in a rebuild. Certainly no contender will be interested in trading a high end player for mostly picks and prospects. It makes no sense. So who could the Penguins look into? Let’s take a look:
Johan Klingberg; Remember him? He has been injured for almost 6 weeks with a broken hand, but had 13 points in 16 games before his injury. He is certainly valuable to the Dallas Stars, but in the West, the Stars are a bubble team. There is a chance Klingberg may not be available, but if the Stars are looking to rebuild, trading him at a peak value may be start if the Pens could give them what they want.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Would the Coyotes consider trading OEL? Quite possibly. There were rumors a few years ago that the Penguins had inquired about OEL, but nothing every happened with it. He is still relatively young, at only 27, but is having a sub-par season. He has 17 points in 32 games but is -12 on an improving Coyotes team. I’d imagine the Coyotes would take a current defenseman with a high prospect and draft picks if the option was there. It’s certainly worth looking into for the Penguins.
Colton Parayko: The Blues are in a complete mess currently. Their GM recently released a statement basically saying that anyone is available, which would include Parayko. Parayko would be a perfect fit: he’s right handed, can provide both offense and defense, and has a bomb of a slap shot to use on the powerplay. He might cost a good bit, but also might be the most realistic option to target. The Penguins might even consider going after Parayko if Letang stays healthy.
Regardless of what happens, the Penguins need to improve their defense. I would imagine GMJR makes some type of trade before the deadline, but he absolutely needs to if Letang suffers a major injury.