Penguins try to balance trade of Carl Hagelin with business of hockey
Patrick Hornqvist tried to separate the personal and professional parts of his life Wednesday when he heard his good friend and linemate, Carl Hagelin, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
Dealing with the news wasn’t easy on either level.
“It’s a tough day for me and my family,” said Hornqvist, the right wing on a line that included Hagelin on the left side and Evgeni Malkin at center. “He’s been here for a long time. We like each other really a lot. We hang out a lot.”
Then, Hornqvist quickly stopped and reminded himself of why Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford thought it was necessary to send Hagelin, 30, to the Kings for 26-year-old left wing Tanner Pearson.
Take a look at the NHL standings. That’s all Hornqvist needs to know.
The Penguins (7-6-3) are losers of six of their past seven games since Oct. 30 and are seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division.
“This is part of the business,” Hornqvist said. “If you don’t play (well), it’s going to (create) changes, and that’s exactly what happened. For me, personally, too bad it was Hagelin.”
Not long before the trade became official, Rutherford told reporters a deal was forthcoming. He didn’t give any details at that time, but he hinted at why it was necessary.
“At some point in time, we’ll have to make some decisions on some good players who are favorites,” he said, “and turn those players into younger players.”
That’s what happened. Not only is Pearson, 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, four years younger than Hagelin, but he is signed through 2020-21 at an average annual salary of $3.75 million. Hagelin can be a free agent after this season.
The real significance of the trade is how it affects the team now.
Hornqvist, an 11-year veteran who was traded from Nashville to the Penguins after the 2013-14 season, said Rutherford sent “a big message.”
“It’s been 16 games now. We might be playing five good games and a few average and seven or eight really bad ones,” Hornqvist said. “Tough business to be in, but this why we play. We want to win.”
Hornqvist said he believes Pearson, who recorded 84 points the past two seasons but only an assist since the start of this one, “can bring energy” to the team.
“He can score goals. We needed a little shakeup, and he’ll be good for us,” Hornqvist said.
“He’s off to a slow start this year,” Rutherford said. “Maybe lost his confidence a little bit, but he’s had a good career. He’s able to play with their top guys.”
Hagelin, acquired from Anaheim in a January 2016, trade, never scored more than 10 goals in any season for the Penguins. He had one goal and two assists this season.
This was a trade Rutherford, who received a contract extension Wednesday through the 2021-22 season, didn’t take lightly. He understands Hagelin’s popularity in the Penguins locker room and the important role he played on the celebrated HBK line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel during 2016 and ’17 runs to the Stanley Cup championship.
But Rutherford, 69, did what any good pro sports executive would do: He set aside sentiment to deal with reality.
“I’m sure it will affect the chemistry. He was a very popular guy in the room,” Rutherford said. “But I’m not sure how strong the chemistry is right now, based on what I’m seeing.
“I think we’re in a funk now. We’re a fragile team. We’re struggling, but, for the most part, I still believe in this team.
“I feel bad. I’m usually very patient, but my patience is running out.”
Rutherford didn’t rule out additional trades, but he hopes to acquire more patience in the coming weeks while his team tries to recover from its slump.
“We’ll see how this goes here for a little bit,” he said. “The way things have gone here in the first part of the season, it’s obvious we had to change something up.
“We entered the season with a very good team, a team that should contend for the Cup. I believe we can still do that, but we have some work to do.”
In every corner of the Penguins locker room, players expressed regret for Hagelin’s departure.
“Same kind of guy that Flower (Marc-Andre Fleury) was,” Kris Letang said. “He brings so much joy to the dressing room. He’s always happy, always comes in with a good attitude.”
Added Brian Dumoulin: “You have to win in this league. Without it, change might happen.
“I love Carl. I’ll continue to stay in touch with that guy, hopefully for the rest of my life.”
Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t offer any clues to where Pearson might land in the line configuration. But he hinted at some change, especially with Sidney Crosby dealing with an upper-body injury and forward Derek Grant recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Sullivan also had trouble not thinking about what Hagelin meant to the team on and off the ice.
“You build relationships with these guys, especially when you win,” Sullivan said. “For me, those experiences galvanize relationships. And I’m part of that.
“I have so much respect for Haggy, both as a player and as a person, grateful to him for everything that he’s brought to this Pittsburgh Penguins team and helping it have success.”
That said, he added, “It should be a wakeup call to all of us that we have to find some consistency in our game.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.