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Answering five questions about the 2021-22 Pens season

Looking at Brock McGinn, Jason Zucker, young players and...yes, Tristan Jarry

NHL: MAR 08 Hurricanes at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NHL website has offered five questions about the Penguins next season, which presents about as good a place as any to consider thinking on those points and what they might mean.

1. Can Tristan Jarry rebound?

Among the 47 NHL goalies who played at least 20 games last season, Jarry’s .909 save percentage was 25th and his 2.75 goals-against average was 27th. He was 25-9-3, but the Penguins averaged 3.62 goals in his 39 games, second-most among the 47 goalies behind the 3.63 goals the Colorado Avalanche averaged in Philipp Grubauer’s 40 games. In Pittsburgh’s six-game loss to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup First Round, Jarry had an .888 save percentage and allowed at least three goals in five games.

Andy Chiodo, who had worked with Jarry as Penguins goalie development coach, was named their goaltending coach Aug. 4. General manager Ron Hextall said he believes reuniting Jarry and Chiodo on a full-time basis will be beneficial.

The Jarry question is a good one, and what the didn’t touch on was even in the regular season Jarry was very bad in the first few weeks of the season, really great for a couple months, and then suffered that minor injury late in the season and of course was a disaster in the playoff.

So, uh, what Jarry shows up? Early season soft goal machine? Or the Mid-season very solid goalie that went 20-4-2 with a .924 save% from Feb 18 - May 1? It can’t be the nightmare at the end of the season.

But the key takeaway to find is some consistency. Jarry’s highs have been high, but his lows have been devastatingly low. All the Penguins need is a steady, competent performance from their goalie. Jarry hasn’t really proven he can keep that going for very long, but whether or not he can or can’t will be a huge determining factor in how the season goes.

2. Who starts the season at center?

When the Penguins play their opener at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 12, they could be without their top two centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby is expected to miss the start of the season after having surgery on his left wrist Sept. 8. Malkin had surgery on his right knee in June and is not expected to ready for the start of training camp.

That means Jeff Carter likely would take on a larger role. The 36-year-old scored 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in 14 regular-season games after being acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, and then led the Penguins with four goals in six games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Who starts at center is probably less important of a question than “how long will the stars be out”. If Crosby misses six weeks of time — the minimum window announced — that’s only the season’s first four games. Patching Evan Rodrigues or Teddy Blueger in a bigger role for a handful of games isn’t that big of a deal, though naturally it will make for a much weaker lineup.

The team has been a lot more vague about the status and timeline for Evgeni Malkin, though hints are starting to emerge he will be a LTIR candidate. That means Malkin would be out for at least the first 10 games of the season if he’s given that designation. That would peg the earliest possible game back for Malkin as November 9th, though of course perhaps even later.

Be it telling or not, the team has been very coy and elusive about addressing the situation. About all we know is that Malkin had the knee surgery June 3rd, and clearly it was a fairly significant one that’s looking like it will cost him 5+ months of recovery time..

3. Will Jason Zucker bounce back?

Zucker scored 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 38 regular-season games and three points (two goals, one assist) in six playoff games last season.

The Penguins are hoping the forward can produce closer to his 2019-20 level, when he scored 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 15 games after being acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 10, 2020. That hope could become a distinct need if Crosby and Malkin are out for any length of time during the season.

As often said here, if I could buy stock in Jason Zucker, based off fan and league perception of him, I would be doing so hand over fist. Zucker is a good player who has a history of being productive, though he did have a choppy and uneven 2020-21, where he lost time to injury. If Zucker stays healthy he should be scoring in the 20-25 goal range and the 45ish point area, quite easily. That may not sound like a ton, but it’s a solid secondary scoring option that isn’t going to get a lot of PP1 time. He will be a good player for the Pens this season.

4. Will any prospects make an impact?

The Penguins could use a boost from their young talent, and defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph and forwards Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare could be ready to push for NHL spots.

Joseph scored five points (one goal, four assists) and averaged 16:47 of ice time in 16 games for Pittsburgh last season, and the 22-year-old could compete for a third-pair role this season or play on the top pair with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

I’m low on this one that any young player is going to make a major mark on the NHL season this year. It wouldn’t be shocking if Joseph was ready, but his opportunity might be limited by the fact the team has three highly-paid NHL options ahead of him on the left handed depth chart. And Mike Sullivan is hesitant to play a left shot on the right side, and for good reason – the system runs better and is designed to be played with a lefty on the left side and righty on the right. But injuries happen to the Penguin blueline, and Joseph may well get his chance. He just turned 21-years old this summer, which is still extremely young for a defensive prospect. Going to Wilkes, playing top minutes and getting more seasoning wouldn’t be the worst thing for him for a bit longer.

Poulin and Legare will be intriguing players to watch in camp, since both are young, fairly stocky/heavy 210ish pound players that are physically developed and have some offensive upside. Both are probably better served starting in the AHL though, and going to have trouble standing out in the sea of the Sam Lafferty’s and Anthony Angello’s and Radim Zohorna’s who are in that same mix towards the bottom end of the roster.

The one young player I would bet on to carve out an NHL niche this season, wasn’t mentioned in the article. It’s Filip Hallander. He’s got experience playing in a pro league from his days in Sweden. He’s a net-front player and regarded as a very good two-way player without the puck. Those are areas Hallander has an edge over fellow pospects like Poulin and Legare. Being responsible and good away from the puck, and keeping a simple mentality to go to the net is also a good way to make a roster on a lower line. This isn’t a prediction that Hallander actually will make the roster out of training camp, but at this point I’d give him the best chance of any pure prospect to win a job.

5. What can Brock McGinn contribute?

McGinn signed a four-year contract July 28 and likely will be a middle-six forward and see time as a net-front presence on the power play. He never averaged more than 14:59 of ice time per game in any of his six NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes; the six forwards who played on Pittsburgh’s top two lines for most of last season averaged at least 15:32 per game (Crosby, 20:24; Jake Guentzel, 20:16; Bryan Rust, 19:43; Malkin, 17:44; Zucker, 15:41; and Kasperi Kapanen, 15:32).

The ice time and usage of McGinn in Pittsburgh will be an interesting one to watch. As an energy forward who is a solid PKer, he’s a natural to pencil into the role that Brandon Tanev has vacated. That brings about its own challenges, being as Tanev was always very good on the ice. McGinn at 27-years old with 345 NHL games under his belt is a known quantity, he’s not suddenly going to play 17 minutes a night or score 20 goals in a season, but he’s not really being placed in a role to do that.

At minimum he’s going to play good defense, and has been matched against top opposition. At best (like last year where his 8 goals in 37 games were on pace for 18 in a full 82 game season), McGinn can finish and chip in some offense. Twice he’s been a 10+ goal scorer in the NHL. Twice more he’s been on pace for it before shortened seasons have thwarted him. McGinn’s a player who probably scores 11-15 goals, around 30 points, throw a hit or two, kill some penalties and be a reasonably solid middle lineup forward for the Pens, just as Tanev was before him.