Ron Hextall has been far from perfect in his first two years as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and there have been some big mistakes thus far.
But one move that has been terribly successful – so far – has been the addition of Rickard Raquel, and his presence in the top row alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel has been one of the factors that have made all the difference for the Penguins since his arrival.
He must stay there.
Don’t mess with it until it stops working.
When the Penguins traded in for Raquel, I saw an interesting player who was kind of a wild card because his last run with the Anaheim Ducks was so tough. When he first arrived with the Ducks, he was one of the most underrated and ignored scorers in the league, and was a legitimate 30-goal threat for three seasons. Hence its production went into the tank. Was it the talent surrounding him that was holding him back? Was it something in his game? Just some bad luck? Did he simply need a new environment? Tired of my default questions yet?
Early in the 2021-22 season he started to show some signs of recovery and quickly returned 20+ goals. Considering how little the penguins paid to buy it, it at least seemed like a worthwhile gamble. Maybe it will continue to be emitted? And if he didn’t, all it cost them was a few fourth rounds, a pick, and two weeks off the season.
But what immediately struck me about Raquel is how talented he really is. Not just from a goal-scoring perspective. He can play, pass and make tricky plays in the attacking area that look simple and he is a very skilful striker. He also seemed to have an instant connection with Crosby and Guentzel in the first row, who completely dominated at the end of the regular season.
It’s a shame two of them ended up in the playoffs.
Among the penguins’ pending free agents in the offseason last season, Raquel was one client that I wasn’t even on my radar for returning because he seemed like a pure hire. Instead, the Penguins shocked everyone by signing him to a long-term deal. Risky, given its age and the inconsistency of production in the past few years? no doubt. But at this point, I’m taking the same approach with Rakell that I’ve taken with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. In four or five years the team will probably spread out anyway, so if you can maximize your chance to compete and win over the next two or three years, go for it and do what you want to do.
So far, I’m still a huge fan of Rakell, and he seems to make every line he’s part of better and more productive. Especially the top line.
Despite their success, including early this season, the Penguins decided to shake things up and put Raquel with Malkin, Jason Zucker, and Brian Rust back on top with Crosby and Guentzel. While Malkin, Zucker and Raquel continued to excel, the first line struggled badly with Rast.
directly until the Penguins return to their original alignment.
At that point, everything started to turn around for both the Crosby line and the Penguins as a team.
Individually, Raquel scored 25 goals and 55 points with the Penguins, totally a top six winger.
But what really stands out is how well this trio performs with Crosby and Guentzel.
Going back to the end of the 2021-22 regular season, the Crosby-Guentzel-Rakell line played over 178 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together and was absolutely dominant. They own over 54 percent of shot attempts, scoring chances, high-risk scoring chances, and expected goals, while also possessing an incredible 17-4-goal advantage. They also have an average of 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 Raquel on their streak in over 940 minutes of hockey.
There’s no need to break this trio up, especially since Malkin and Zucker managed to produce with Rust on their line. It gave them two strong streaks to score.
Not only was Rakell great at the top line in 5-on-5 and he got a constant look out there, I want to see what he can do at the top of the power play instead of Rust. This unit needs spark and leverage, and given the way Rakell has raised the line to the top, it’s worth seeing if he can do the same with Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin and Letang in the power play.