Ron Hextall has been far from perfect in his first two years as Pittsburgh Penguins general manager, and there have been some big misses so far.
But one move that has been a nice hit — so far — has been the addition of Rickard Rakell, and his presence on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel has been a big difference-maker for the Penguins since his arrival.
He should stay there.
It is working.
It has worked.
Do not mess with it until it stops working.
When the Penguins traded for Rakell I saw an intriguing player that was a bit of a wild card because his recent career with the Anaheim Ducks had been so hit-and-miss. When he first arrived with the Ducks he was one of the most underrated and overlooked goal-scorers in the league, and a legitimate 30-goal threat for three seasons. And then his production kinda went in the tank. Was it the talent surrounding him that was holding him back? Was it something with his game? Just some bad luck? Did he simply need a new environment? Are you tired of my hypothetical questions yet?
Early in the 2021-22 season he started to show some signs of bouncing back and was back on a 20-plus goal pace. Given how little the Penguins paid to acquire him, it at least seemed like a worthwhile gamble. Maybe he would continue that resurgence? And if he didn’t, all it cost them was a couple of fourth-rounders, a pick, and a couple of weeks of the season.
But what immediately struck me about Rakell was just how talented he actually is. Not just from a goal-scoring perspective, either. He can make plays, he can pass, he can make tricky plays in the offensive zone look simple, and he is an extremely skilled forward. He also seemed to have an immediate connection with Crosby and Guentzel on the top line, which absolutely dominated at the end of the regular season.
It is a shame two of them ended up getting hurt in the playoffs.
Of the Penguins’ pending free agents this past offseason, Rakell was one that I didn’t even have on the radar for returning because he just seemed to be a pure rental. Instead, the Penguins shocked everyone by signing him to a long-term deal. Risky, given his age and inconsistent production the past few years? No doubt. But at this point I am taking the same approach with Rakell that I have with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. In four or five years the team is probably going to stink anyway, so if you can maximize your chance to compete and win over the next two to three years then go for it and do what you need to do.
So far, I remain to be impressed with Rakell, and he seems to make every line he is a part of better and more productive. Especially the top line.
Despite their success, including early this season, the Penguins still decided to shake things up and put Rakell with Malkin and Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust back on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel. While Malkin, Zucker, and Rakell continued to excel, the top line struggled badly with Rust.
Right up until the Penguins swapped back to the original alignment.
It was at that point that everything started to shift for both the Crosby line and the Penguins as a team.
Individually, Rakell has scored at a 25-goal, 55-point pace with the Penguins, which is absolutely as a top-six winger.
But what really stands out is how well that trio with Crosby and Guentzel has performed.
Going back to the end of the 2021-22 regular season, the Crosby-Guentzel-Rakell line has played more than 178 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together and been downright dominant. They own a better than 54 percent share of the shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals, while also owning an incredible 17-4 goals advantage. They also average 5.74 goals per 60 minutes. Since the start of last season, Crosby and Guentzel have averaged 2.94 goals per 60 minutes with a winger other than Rakell on their line in over 940 minutes of hockey.
There is no need to break this trio up, especially as Malkin and Zucker have been able to produce with Rust on their line. It has given them two strong scoring lines.
Not only has Rakell been great on the top-line at 5-on-5 and earned a continued look there, I want to see what he can do on the top power play in place of Rust. That unit needs a spark and a lift, and given the way Rakell has lifted the top line, it is worth seeing if he can do the same for Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin, and Letang on the power play.