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NHL trade grades: Hurricanes push chips all-in with Jake Guentzel; Penguins take first step toward rebuild

The Carolina Hurricanes made it perfectly clear that they’re making their Stanley Cup push with the acquisition of star forward Jake Guentzel in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins acquired forwards Michael Bunting, Ville Koivunen, Vasily Ponomarev and Cruz Lucius, a conditional 2024 first-round pick and a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick. 

The Hurricanes will send a 2024 first-round pick to the Penguins if Carolina makes it to the Stanley Cup Final. It will become a 2024 second-round pick if the Hurricanes don’t reach the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins will receive an additional 2024 fifth-round pick if Carolina wins the Stanley Cup.

The Penguins will also retain 25% of Guentzel’s salary.

The Hurricanes had a chance to upgrade their forward group in a move that could potentially put them over the top this season. Even though Guentzel is an unrestricted free agent this summer, the reward far outweighs the risk in this particular scenario.

Meanwhile, the Penguins are fading out of the playoff race with an aging core. The franchise wasn’t really in a position to risk losing Guentzel for nothing, so it made the deal to stockpile talent and potentially get an early start on a rebuild.

Carolina really did well to land a player of Guentzel’s caliber, who don’t come available at the trade deadline very often. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s return may not have been as lofty as some would’ve thought. Let’s break down the deal between the two sides.

The deal

  • To Carolina: Jake Guentzel and Ty Smith
  • To Pittsburgh: Michael Bunting, Ville Koivunen, Vasily Ponomarev, Cruz Lucius, a conditional 2024 first-round pick and a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick

Carolina Hurricanes

After the Hurricanes were swept by the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final last season, the team took an aggressive approach in free agency and signed defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Michael Bunting this past summer. They showed that the team is looking to make that Stanley Cup push, and they furthered that mindset with the acquisition of Guentzel.

In a move that the franchise has rarely made in recent years, Carolina shipped out an abundance of tangible assets in order to bring in a superstar-caliber player that could put it over the top.

Guentzel offers a tremendous amount of versatility as he can play on either wing. It’s likely that Guentzel will skate on the right wing opposite Andrei Svechnikov with Sebastian Aho centering that line.

Guentzel is a huge goal-scoring threat that should fit seamlessly into Carolina’s roster based on his up-tempo style of play. The star forward is as dangerous of a finisher as there is around the NHL and will give the Hurricanes another dynamic goal-scorer at the top of their lineup. 

The former Penguins forward has had the benefit of skating on a line with Sidney Crosby for the bulk of his career. Obviously, Crosby can make a lot of players look really good based on his sensational playmaking skills, but Guentzel should thrive in Carolina just as he did in Pittsburgh. Guentzel just has such a tremendous hockey IQ and has a nose for the net.

The Hurricanes did surrender several assets in order to acquire Guentzel, but nothing that ultimately can’t be replaced. This is the type of a move that a Stanley Cup contender has to make. With the Eastern Conference being wide open, the Hurricanes got a leg up in the arms race, and really have all the pieces to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup later this season. Grade — A

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have fought so hard against turning the page on a core that netted the franchise two Stanley Cup titles over the past decade. When given the opportunity to move on from aging stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a few summers ago, Pittsburgh decided to keep the band together for a few final runs. 

On top of that, the Penguins attempted to push their chips all-in when they acquired reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in a trade with the San Jose Sharks last summer. However, Pittsburgh is fading out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, so Kyle Dubas made the decision to get a package for Guentzel rather than risk losing him for nothing this summer.

The package that the Penguins received for Guentzel was headlined by forward Michael Bunting. Bunting is currently in his fifth NHL season and has tallied 36 points (13 goals and 23 assists) in 60 games this season. He had signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract with the Hurricanes in the 2023 offseason after spending the previous two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Bunting isn’t the type of game-breaker that can completely transform a roster, but he’s a crafty scoring winger that can skate on Pittsburgh’s second or third line. He excels at digging pucks free and has showcased a bit of a scoring touch over the past couple of seasons. 

Forward Ville Koivunen was one of the key prospects coming to the Penguins in the deal. Koivunen was originally selected with the No. 51 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Hurricanes and definitely has the most upside out of this prospect group. He is always looking to put the goal in the back of the net on every shift, and has displayed a dynamic goal-scoring ability early on in his career. Koivunen currently has 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) while playing for Kärpät in the top-tier Finnish league Liiga.

The Penguins also obtained Russian forward Vasily Ponomarev in the trade. Ponomarev was selected with the No. 53 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft by the Hurricanes and excels on both ends of the ice as a two-way center. He possesses a tremendous work ethic and can dig the puck free off the wall quite often. While he’s not the most lethal offensive forward, Ponomarev has registered 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 39 games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves in 2023-24.

One of the biggest hangups on this deal is the fact that the Penguins might not even get a first-round pick out of it. It only becomes a first-round pick if the Hurricanes reach the Stanley Cup Final this season. Obviously, there’s a favorable chance that Carolina could reach the NHL’s mountaintop, but anything can happen come playoff time.

Perhaps, this was the best deal that Dubas could get on the trade market. Even still, it’s hard to stomach the fact that the Penguins couldn’t net a more talented offensive player than Bunting or at least get a guaranteed first-round pick. This is a situation where Pittsburgh will need to hope that these prospects pan out down the road. Grade — C+

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