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Age not in the Penguins’ favor, and youth is depleted

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The Pens’ problems are widespread with an aging core and a lack of youth to support them

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the latest in “Jim Rutherford offseason comments” the Trib has quotes from the Penguins’ general manager about not believing his team is not done just yet.

The team’s championship window, Rutherford insists, is not closed.

“Because I have such a belief in (Sidney Crosby), Matt Murray, our coach and a number of other people in that room that have done it before and know how to do it,” Rutherford said. “But we have to go about it the way we did when we won. We can’t go about it as individuals and not come together as a team.

“I believe we have the ability to do it. If it’s not the ability to do it with the exact same guys, we certainly have players that other teams want that we can make the changes and bring in different players and good players.”

For the Penguins core to win another championship, it first would have to stay intact, then buck age-curve trends that have existed in the NHL for decades.

By the start of next season, Evgeni Malkin will be 33. Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel will be 32.

The age really stands out, but should it? It’s been written here before and probably will be again another dozen times, but it has to be pointed out that Sidney Crosby is still a dominant player in the NHL. Crosby finished tied for fifth in the league with 100 points in 2018-19 and was second in the NHL with 2.92 Points per 60. Letang was one of the league’s best defensemen in the first 60 games of the season before getting hurt. Kessel was still a point-per-game player. Malkin had an off-year but is still Malkin and still did score 72 points in 68 games.

One major reason for Crosby’s resurgence, and the fact he had the best season of all the star players was the play of Sid’s common linemate Jake Guentzel. Guentzel scored 40 goals overall on the season, and 33 of those came at even strength, third most in the league. That was more than superstars like Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid. Eye popping numbers and production by Guentzel and while it’s true there’s no doubt playing with Crosby benefits Jake, the reverse is true as well with Crosby enjoying a sensational season in large part because he had a winger to play off of and was good enough to score. A lot of scoring.

But highlighting Guentzel as one of the team’s greatest strengths also points out it’s greatest weakness right now. They don’t have enough supporting players to help the stars.

The Pens’ revival in 2016 and 2017 was aided by new, young players all over the board. You had:

  • Guentzel as a major reason the team repeated in 2017 with 13 goals and 21 points in that playoff season.
  • Conor Sheary was in the top-six and productive (picture that OT GWG vs San Jose) adding speed and some skill, once scoring 53 points in 61 games in his best regular season.
  • Bryan Rust was providing a shot in the arm of any line he was one (with important Game 7 goals against Tampa and Washington along the way). Rust scored 13 total goals in the NHL playoff springs of 2016 and 2017. He’s only scored three total goals in the two playoffs that have followed in 2018 and 2019.
  • Brian Dumoulin popped onto the scene as a contributing, steady top-four defenseman, and in fact a top-line dman for the playoff runs of 2016 and 2017. Dumoulin’s job in Letang’s absence in the repeat year really can’t be minimized.
  • Even to a lesser extent Pittsburgh was refreshed by lower line energy players like Tom Kuhnhackl and Scott Wilson adding fresh legs to the scene.

Fast forward to 2019 and....It’s not the same picture.

Guentzel and Dumoulin are doing more than ever but the rest hasn’t been replicated. Rust had an inconsistent season and Sheary, Kuhnhackl and Wilson are long gone.

Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to reload in the same way.

  • Jared McCann is the closest thing to a shot in the arm with his speed and skill adding 11 goals and 17 points in 32 games as a Penguin. Only three were of the 5v5 variety though.
  • Zach Aston-Reese had 17 points on the season in 43 games, but injuries have been a major concern for ZAR, who has missed almost as much time in his NHL career as he’s been available.
  • Teddy Blueger flashed a bit but still didn’t rise above healthy scratch level in the coach’s eyes for the 2019 playoff run.
  • Marcus Pettersson did OK in a third pair role, but paired mostly with Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson this season, Pettersson isn’t really in a position for success.

To make matters worse, there’s nothing on the horizon from the AHL that’s going to add to the mix. 24-year old Adam Johnson (two assists in six NHL games this season) is the most intriguing but he’s much more on the Wilson/Kuhnhackl fourth line level than a Guentzel/Rust productive scorer. Beyond that, the cupboard is bare as a result of trading numerous high picks from 2014-17 as Rutherford made moves to fuel a contender team.

While a lot of the heat always falls to the star players — with the general manager not absolving or even willing to commit to star players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel — the key is the core around the stars.

Because as also written here, an NHL team isn’t going to trade a transcendental talent and become a better team for it in the short-term with the way the salary cap and partial no trade clauses go. If Rutherford wants to shut the Pens’ window, he will trade Letang or Kessel. Unless one of them is willing to waive their no-trade, there’s just not going to be a lot of return coming back.

Since the Penguins don’t have a lot of youth to surround their stars with the caliber of player that they need, which means Rutherford is going to have to turn to the trade market to restock the deck. His decisions there on what he wants to or is able to do with suspected trade bait like Olli Maatta and a future first round pick will go a long way to determining if the Pens’ window can be open for another run next spring.