The Pittsburgh Penguins might have done more than simply add a versatile winger when they re-signed Danton Heinen.
They brought back a guy who could firm up the identity of their third line.
And perhaps more importantly, they made it possible for Ron Hextall to upgrade what he is willing to offer in the trade(s) he almost certainly must make to get under the salary-cap ceiling of $82.5 million before the regular season begins.
That’s not to suggest that Hextall should have kicked off his workday this morning by soliciting, or even entertaining, offers for Heinen from other teams.
Quite the opposite, actually.
Given the circumstances of Heinen’s return — Ken Wiebe, a highly respected hockey writer in Winnipeg, reported that the Jets and other clubs offered Heinen more than the $1 million he accepted from the Penguins — it would be a betrayal of sorts to even contemplate sending him elsewhere now.
Pro hockey, of course, is a cut-throat, bottom-line business, and sometimes personnel decisions that seem downright cruel become necessary.
In this case, however, it could be counter-productive to deal Heinen after he took less money because he was so interested in remaining with the Penguins.
This organization has earned a reputation over the past couple of decades for treating its people well and operating in an honorable manner; that’s part of the reason it has become a desirable destination for free agents.
Like, you know, Danton Heinen.
(Mind you, winning three Stanley Cups in a nine-year span and having a handful of future Hall of Famers as teammates has been part of that appeal, too.)
However, that reputation could be damaged, if not scuttled, by dealing someone who had more lucrative options but still chose to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (And took a $100,000 pay cut in the process, no less.)
Still, having Heinen means Hextall can sweeten any trade proposal he cobbles together by adding another NHL-caliber forward to the mix.
It’s not known whether Hextall will attempt to pull off a high-impact deal, but if so, being able to add Jason Zucker or Kasperi Kapanen or Brock McGinn to a package that includes, say, Marcus Pettersson or P.O Joseph could make a significant return possible.
Heinen, coming off an 18-goal season, is skilled enough to fill a top-six vacancy, at least in the short term, but with the current makeup of the roster, probably would be penciled in on the left side of the No. 3 line, with Jeff Carter and Kapanen.
That would give the Penguins a third unit capable of making a significant contribution to the offense, especially if Kapanen would produce to his potential.
Heinen has 62 goals in 348 career NHL games and has scored more than 11 just twice in six seasons, so it likely would be a reach to deploy him on the second line permanently.
He did fill in there capably while Zucker was injured last season, though, and can play either wing, which is the kind of versatility Mike Sullivan appreciates.
There’s no question that bringing Heinen back was a shrewd move by Hextall, a classic low-risk, possibly high-reward acquisition.
Heinen clearly will have something to prove to teams that might be interested in signing him when he goes back on the market next summer — never mind that he seemed to establish his value rather emphatically in 2021-22 — and the fact that he chose to make the point with the Penguins when he could have made more money elsewhere should not be overlooked.
Nor should the impact his return could have on a variety of issues for the Pittsburgh Penguins before — and during — the season that’s ahead.