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Looking at three questions for the Penguins in 2021 asked them, so we’ll take stabs at answering

Buffalo Sabres v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

As part of their team season previews, talked about the Penguins yesterday. Including asking three questions. So what better way to spend a Wednesday then by thinking up some answers to them?

1. Can Tristan Jarry handle being the No. 1 goalie?

The 25-year-old was 12-2-0 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in 13 starts from Nov. 16-Dec. 30 last season, including three shutouts in four starts Dec. 4-12, and had a .929 save percentage at even strength compared to .901 for Murray.

Jarry, who was a restricted free agent, signed a three-year contract Oct. 3.

“I think just growing a little bit in every aspect of my game will really help, and to play more games and more games consecutively, I think that’s going to be a big thing for me and be able to help me with my development,” Jarry said.

This is the $10.5 million question. That’s the total value of Jarry’s new three year contract, which made him the undisputed “man” in Pittsburgh and paved the way for Matt Murray’s up-and-down Pens’ career to be over.

Nothing about 2020 is normal, and the 2020-21 (or just 2021?) season will be much the same. We’re likely to get a 56 game regular season, which is a positive since it means Jarry won’t have to be the number one goaltender over a six month, 82 game marathon. But it will mean a pretty long five month, 56 game sprint that may or may not condense the schedule to include more back-to-backs for travel/safety purposes.

Whether these conditions will be a positive or a negative for Jarry probably depend on how he performs. It’ll be different, but the Pens’ have seen enough with him in the organization these last few years to trust the future in net to Jarry. If he plays like he did from October to January of last year, they’ll be in a great spot. If he plays like he did from January to March, it will not be such a great situation.

Goaltenders are tough to predict, but Jarry has had the skill to show that he can provide average to above average results in 33 games last year, and should be in-line to perform similarly in the next season.

2. Will Kasperi Kapanen have success on a line with center Sidney Crosby?

Kapanen was given a vote of confidence when, after being traded to Pittsburgh by the Toronto Maple Leafs, coach Mike Sullivan said the right wing could be just what Crosby and Jake Guentzel need to jump-start the top line this season.

“We think he brings that speed dimension that I think is complementary to Sid and Jake’s game,” Sullivan told The Scoop podcast in November. “And he’s shown the ability to finish. He’s scored 20 goals in this league (2018-19). He has elite speed, he has good size (6-foot-1, 194 pounds), so he brings a size dimension to that line as well. So when we play in games that tend to be heavy in nature, I think [Kapanen is] a guy who can help us in that capacity. We think his skill set could potentially be very complementary to Sid and Jake.”

It’s easy to see why the acquisition of Kapanen gets the spotlight, especially with the Sullivan comments that the 24-year old speedy winger will be the flashy new addition to the Guentzel/Crosby line. However, this question could probably be more keenly phrased to leave off the back part and just ask “will Kasperi Kapanen have success on a scoring line”?

The Pens’ paid a hefty price for Kapanen. They see a player who at age-22 played on a line with Auston Matthews and scored 20 goals and 44 points in 2018-19, despite not getting a lot of power play time. Pittsburgh is overlooking the sophomore slump season Kapanen had in 2019-20, where he was shuffled off a scoring line and tallied just 13 goals in 69 games.

Clearly, being tabbed as the next winger for Sid draws attention. In the Pens’ ideal world, Kapanen’s skating and skill are a great fit and he regains 2018-19 form becoming a productive player that helps boost the offense.

But, if it doesn’t happen with Crosby, it’s not the end of the world. After all, the last time the Penguins traded a first round pick and more for a Toronto right winger in 2015, the initial idea was to play him with Crosby and that didn’t work. And all Phil Kessel and the Pens did was find a way to win the next two Stanley Cups.

Kasperi Kapanen is not Phil Kessel, but there is a successful path for him in Pittsburgh beyond simply the first line. The trade would sure look a lot better for the Pens however if Kapanen can play well with Crosby, though.

3. Is it now or never to win another Stanley Cup with an aging core?

Crosby is 33 years old, forward Evgeni Malkin is 34, and defenseman Kris Letang is 33. Malkin and Letang each can become an unrestricted free agent after 2021-22; Crosby has five seasons remaining on a 12-year contract he signed in July 2012.

“I believe how [Crosby, Malkin and Letang] prepare themselves and how they conduct themselves on and off the ice will set us up for a couple more good years,” assistant general manager Patrik Allvin said. “I think we’ll be able to get some youth into our club this season, and the trades that [general manager Jim Rutherford] made, starting last year, for [defenseman] John Marino (July 2019) and [forward] Jason Zucker (February 2020) and this year with Kapanen and [defenseman] Mike Matheson, have provided a boost.

“I think we’ve brought in some new, young energy, so I’m excited.”

Allvin’s comments provide a lot of the answer. In the last 14 months, the Pens have added Kapanen, Jason Zucker and John Marino to the lineup. Jarry is now the starting goalie and may be an improvement over recent Matt Murray seasons.

The Pens have dropped some NHL players in the last 14 months too, but overall they’ve actually spent assets like the 2020 and 2021 first round picks to add prime NHL pieces to the puzzle. It’s true the core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang are getting older, but the group around them is probably as young as it’s ever been, and the team has been able to improve in some positions.

So the answer to is it “now or never” for the Pens is no, 2021 is not the last gasp of the Crosby/Malkin era. Malkin is still signed through 2022, so the Pens will essentially be in the same boat in 2021-22 as they are heading into 2020-21.

Is 2021 the last best chance for the Pens with this core group? Sure, that is probably true. If you look back through history, Mario Lemieux won his last Stanley Cup as a player at age 26. Wayne Gretzky won his final Cup at age 27, which was the same age for Gordie Howe’s last Cup. Bobby Orr last lifted it at age 24. That’s not really good omens for players like Crosby and Malkin who are now deep into their 30’s, and Sid himself was 29 when he skated the Cup in Nashville.

It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup, period. It’s even harder for older players to be the main engines of their team’s in what is a young man’s game, and more than ever the NHL feels like it’s getting younger all the time. The Pens’ window to contend isn’t slammed shut, but the past few years of the playoffs have made it seem like the sun is starting to set on what has been the NHL’s most successful team in the salary cap era.