It’s a new year and a few days off, so why not look ahead into the cloudy crystal ball for some predictions on the Penguins...
#1 Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are re-signed to dual four year extensions
The new ownership of Fenway Sports Group has said all the right things in the early days of their stewardship of the team, which officially took effect on December 31st. That boils down to basically stating that they want to continue to spend to the upper limit of the salary cap, and have the good sense to realize that the team has a good thing going on the ice and also off the ice in key coaching and management positions. They will give the major hockey decisions to the “hockey people”. With this money quote from chairman Tom Werner:
“As it relates to the Letang and Malkin, we know that they want to stay here and we’d like them to stay here. We know what they mean to Pittsburgh. Beyond that I’ll leave it up to Hextall and Burkie.”
Both Malkin and Letang in recent days have made it known they want to play for the foreseeable future (3 or 4 or 5 more years by personal talk). Mario Lemieux wasn’t specifically mentioned by Werner, but Lemieux’s influence and sway on hockey operations and knowing the value first-hand of keeping franchise cornerstones in place can’t be under-stated.
When the dust settles, Pittsburgh will keep No. 71 and 58 for four more years each, which is one more year than Sidney Crosby is under contract. But as an early prediction, the captain will be staying longer as a player in Pittsburgh past his current deal that lasts until 2024-25 too.
Malkin and Letang combine right now for a total of $16.75 million against the salary cap. They won’t be signing for less than that, but they also won’t be breaking the bank or changing the status of the team’s salary cap structure that much either. Which means it will extend the future of the core of group with Crosby, Malkin and Letang for a while longer in Pittsburgh.
#2 Bryan Rust finds greener pastures in free agency...
But something has to give though on the Pens’ salary structure. Unfortunately that will mean seeing Bryan Rust price himself out of Pittsburgh, like so many others have done before him. It will be a business decision, and a wise one for a player who turns 30 this spring in order to set himself up financially.
Much like Zach Hyman signed a $38.5 million contract for seven years last summer to leave Toronto and go to Edmonton ($5.5 million cap hit), don’t be surprised to see Rust get a very similar deal from another team in terms of money and contract length. And also with no movement protection that Hyman secured for a valuable and lucrative deal that the Pens just won’t be in a position to offer for Rust.
#3 ...And the Pens will tap Evan Rodrigues as the replacement for Rust’s spot
Rust is playing on a four-year, $14 million contract ($3.5 million cap hit). Based on the fit and success Rodrigues has found in Pittsburgh, it makes a lot of sense that he should be looking to stay in a system where he has finally found just a great niche and home.
And the Pens, for their part, will have that hole to fill with a top-six right wing when Rust’s contract ends. Enter Rodrigues, who as a one-year wonder (to this point anyways) probably wouldn’t find a firm market of teams trusting his success to make a large commitment. But the Pens can, and should, jump at the chance to slot Rodrigues in with a heavy raise and term comparable to what Rust has been playing with now.
#4 Mike Sullivan will finally get the Jack Adams buzz he deserves
Mike Sullivan has never really gotten a lot of momentum for the coach of the year award, a victim to the whims and narratives that tend to circulate about what really makes a good coach a top coach. But the Pens’ bench boss will, if not win, at least be a finalist this year, and rightfully so. There’s always some good stories around the league and tough competition, but what the hell — no half measures. If the Pens finish the season strong, Sullivan will and should be a deserving Jack Adams winner this year.
#5 The Pens will commit to building their young talent base
Not counting Kasperi Kapanen — Pittsburgh’s 2014 first round choice who was drafted by the Pens but was traded and then later re-acquired — the Penguins have only made one first round pick since 2012 (that being Sam Poulin in 2019).
In 2022 the Pens will break the trend in a major way, with a prediction here that Pittsburgh will be making a first AND second round pick in this year’s entry draft. They have only done so three times since 2008 when they became a perennial contender (with a pick in each of the first two rounds coming last in the 2009, 2011 and 2012 drafts).
#6 There will be a change in the goaltending situation in 2022
After a few solid seasons, Casey DeSmith has had a woeful season in 2021-22, being one of the NHL’s worst goalies this season. Sensing a recall to the playoff of last spring, GM Ron Hextall won’t allow the team to go into the 2022 playoffs without a capable option as a backup that the team can turn to, if need be. Hextall will zig when others might expect a zag, and bring in a new goalie that perhaps isn’t quite an obvious candidate or top name mentioned (Thomas Greiss? Jonas Korpisalo? Stay tuned..)
But this prediction is somewhat weaselly with a bit of an out, if you may notice. DeSmith is a free agent this summer, and either way by the end of 2022, the Jarry-DeSmith tandem, which in some form or fashion has been in place since 2015-16 in either Wilkes-Barre or Pittsburgh, will not be intact by the end of this calendar year. Time moves on and the goalie market is fluid. You won’t see Jarry and DeSmith starting the 2022-23 season together.
#7 Pittsburgh will finally have a player born in the 2000’s play for them in 2022
Unlike many teams, some of which have 2003 birth-years playing in the NHL, Pittsburgh has yet to see a player born in the decade of the 2000’s play for them in the regular season. That will finally come to an end in 2022, as the Pens finally get the zoomiest of zoomer aged players into the lineup. It might be Poulin, or
Valtteri Puustinen, or Filip Hallander, or even goalie Filip Lindberg (nope, 1999 birthdays). But by the end of 2022, the Pens will crack the milestone of having their first ever player born in the decade of Y2K in their roster at least once.