It was completely unintentional and surely not wanted, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten a taste of life without Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Kris Letang this season.
It’s notable because all three are pending free agents. Previously and under different GM’s and different age considerations, Malkin and Letang have always been re-signed at the earliest possible moment, as has Sidney Crosby. Malkin and Letang, for instance, both signed matching terms of eight-year contracts on July 1st, 2013 — the very first day both were eligible to do so. Those contract didn’t even begin until the start of the 2014-15 season.
That first day both were eligible to re-sign was in July of this year. Though Ron Hextall gave some vague updates about levels of talks with each respective camps over the summer, the Penguins haven’t been in an extreme hurry to get pen to paper for two very huge pieces of their franchise.
Perhaps it’s because they already know what they want to do, and neither side are in that big of rushes. However, there’s also a bit to prove: Malkin, 35, is coming off a major knee surgery and hasn’t exactly been the picture of health. Do the Pens brass need or want to see some level of play out of him this season? It’s a viable question.
Bryan Rust, though not a 15-year franchise icon like the other two, is still another very key player for next year that doesn’t have a contract. As a preferred and valuable right wing of Crosby and significantly younger than Malkin and Letang, from a non-emotional view it’s possible from 2022-27ish that Rust would be a more key overall piece for the team on the ice than the older players.
Injuries and COVID have put Pittsburgh in a unique position, one they may have had no choice in the matter, but still have no point in ignoring now with all of Malkin, Letang and Rust unavailable.
We really haven’t seen the overall absence of Malkin yet, since Crosby himself just got back from off-season surgery last game, and Jeff Carter has been in and out and is now back in the lineup. But (hopefully) for now until whenever Malkin returns in December or January, the Pens will get a real sense of life without Malkin, but with some skill centers. The 36-year old Carter (himself a UFA at season’s end) isn’t a long term solution but should give a base line for a different second line center.
On defense, there’s been a better peak at life without Letang after a positive COVID test on October 20th. Letang has missed the last four games, and Pittsburgh is 1-3-0 in that stretch, coincidentally or not. Further, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino, the first pair in Letang’s absence, have been on ice for exactly 0 goals for. Dumoulin has been on ice for four 5v5 goals against, Marino even more at six goals against (and another when the Pens were on the power play and Marino was in Letang’s customary spot on the point).
It’s only four games, but considering how strong Marino’s season started, his performance and games have gotten a lot tougher in the past few games.
Rust has only played the first two games of the season, so the team has had a look for six games without him. Rust has been difficult to replace, with right winger Kasperi Kapanen slumping and struggling, and typical Rust linemate Jake Guentzel only has three 5v5 points in seven games (though a lack of Crosby doubtlessly factors in).
One area there is no denying the Pens have missed their injured star players has been on the power play. Pittsburgh’s power play is at just 13.3% so far this season. All that talent on the sidelines has proven impossible to replace, because, well...Dominik Simon and Brian Boyle and Danton Heinen just aren’t as offensively talented as Malkin and Rust, if that needs to be said.
So far, it’s too early to know what life without Malkin but with Crosby means with the current team, but the defense without Letang has been a scary sight. There’s been mixed performances from wingers other than Rust, with Heinen off to a surprising and much welcomed productive start, Jason Zucker playing and producing well enough but the team looking for more from Kapanen.
As the season moves on, the question about what is next hangs just out of frame. The Crosby, Malkin, Letang era has been going on for quite some time. A forever in NHL standards really, with the Crosby-Malkin partnership now entering a 16th season. That’s over double the seven years that Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr spent as teammates (given Lemieux’s sabbaticals).
The 2021-22 season could be a real sea change for the roster of the Pens, depending on who or how many (if any) of Malkin, Letang or Rust end up spending their last professional year in Pittsburgh. Conceivably if any left, it not only opens up a huge hole in the lineup but also a big chunk of salary space for a replacement, leading to believe the 2022-23 Pens will at least have something on hand.
Now that the season is in full swing and various injuries and illnesses have knocked these key players out temporarily, the Pens may just be seeing a dry run of a future without some players that have been absolute staples over recent memory.
Who have the Pens missed most? The case could be made in several directions, and it’s a glaring point that having Malkin available early this year would have made the biggest difference in lineup strength the most in the times of no Crosby or Carter recently.
The defensive hole created by Letang and the recent struggles of Marino are tough to ignore as well. 25+ minute a night right shot defensemen who (typically) generate positive results against top competition is such a valuable commodity, and allows Marino to slot into a role where he’s had more success.
Rust might not be as key, but recent struggles scoring and a lack of power play production show the Pens miss his presence as well. What say you?
Whose absence have the Penguins missed most this season? (Not in terms of total games, but overall impact)
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