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Without Crosby and Malkin, Penguins starting from familiar painful position

It’s nothing new to have top talent out in Pittsburgh, and it will be that way for the start of the 2021-22 season

Boston Bruins v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Playing without key and superstar players has been baked into the Penguins DNA since the Mario Lemieux days. Unfortunately, 2021-22 will be more of the same in Pittsburgh; we already knew Evgeni Malkin was not going to be playing at the beginning of the season. Now Sidney Crosby had surgery yesterday on an ailing wrist, which poses a threat to miss regular season games if his six week minimum timeline holds true.

So, what now? It looks like it’s going to have to be an internal solution to hold tight until the star centers are back.

“We can’t add a big-dollar player here, because they’re both going to be back,” GM Ron Hextall said yesterday. “This time of the year, you don’t replace players like that. I think we’ve got some guys from within that we’re excited about.”

More from Michelle Crechiolo at the team’s official website:

Hextall said that down the middle, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger are going to get more responsibilities, and they’ll need both centers to perform. After that, Hextall said that the following players would have opportunities that may not have been there in a normal circumstance:

Evan Rodrigues: The coaching staff loves the 28-year-old, and management re-signed him to a one-year contract this summer. The versatile forward, who collected seven goals and 14 points in 35 games last season, has stepped up through injuries before.

Radim Zohorna: The 25-year-old impressed Penguins brass during his rookie season with his ability to quickly transition to the smaller ice surface and adapt his game accordingly. “Big Z,” who is 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, is a power forward with a lot of potential.

Brian Boyle: Speaking of power forwards, Zohorna could learn a lot from this veteran. The 36-year-old was inked to a professional tryout contract just last week, and brings a ton of size (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) along with a ton of experience, as he’s played over 800 games across 12-plus NHL seasons.

Dominik Simon: The 26-year-old is back for a second stint in Pittsburgh after spending last season in the Calgary Flames organization. Prior to that, he played in parts of five seasons with Pittsburgh from 2015-20, appearing in 173 games and recording 64 points (19G-45A). He’s got good skill and hockey sense.

Michael Chaput: The 29-year-old joined the Penguins organization this offseason after spending last year with Arizona. In total, he has played parts of eight seasons in the NHL with the Coyotes, Columbus, Vancouver and Montreal.

Hextall acknowledged that in addition to having guys find another level offensively, the Penguins will need to tighten up their defense and goaltending in order to weather the storm. But he believes that they will, and added that having a light schedule in terms of divisional games early on will help.

The last sentence should be repeated. We’re already seeing antsy publications post doom and gloomish articles and tweets like “the Pens can’t afford a bad start” or “will Crosby return in time to save the season” is drumming up and playing to panic which is a bit extreme at the moment.

...As if the Penguins didn’t start 0-2-0 in a 56 game season last year and still....(checks notes)...Oh yeah, win the division.

If Crosby misses six weeks, that will mean four regular season games. If he misses seven weeks, that’s six games. If it’s eight weeks, that’s eight games. Which means there’s still 90% of the season to go.

The number of Pittsburgh division games in October? Zip, zero.

It won’t be fun, but the Penguins’ ship won’t sink due to slogging through October without their stars.

Another interesting development is just what Malkin’s timeline is. Hextall didn’t want to talk about Gene yesterday in his statements, saying that update would come later. But he made a statement that can be parsed to set an expectation (emphasis added):

“We have enough talent to hold the fort until Sid gets back and then when Geno gets back. When that happens, it’ll be like an addition made to our team.”

By this phrasing, at face value, the Pens are expecting Crosby to return prior to Malkin. Which, I guess makes sense being as Crosby would miss only a handful of games if he comes back close to his minimum timeline. Malkin’s knee surgery was June 3rd, which will be over four months from the regular season start date. Yet his return feels fairly far off at this point. The Pens expect Malkin to play at some point in the regular season, but it could be possible that his season gets eaten into quite a bit by this.

As for now, the Pens will have to do what they have to do too often and soldier on without their best players. On paper the roster won’t look fun — Jeff Carter is 36 and shot an unsustainable 24.3% with the Pens. Teddy Blueger had all of four 5v5 goals last season. And that’s the best centers available! Brian Boyle is also old and hasn’t played in a while, his course back to the NHL looks pretty good at this point. The door is open for Radim Zohorna to play more, if he can, and if he can’t a sub-replacement level option like Chaput could well be in the mix.

It won’t be pretty, but at this point it’s about all the Pens can do to try and get as many points without the big guns and then hopefully benefit from having their best players available.