Wes Crosby spearheaded NHL.com’s Penguin day yesterday at the league’s main website, and one of the more interesting aspects is the article about 3 questions facing the team in the coming year. If they’re asking, let’s go about seeing what the answers or key factors should be for the Pens.
1. Was keeping the core together the right move?
Sidney Crosby, 35, will play his 18th NHL season in Pittsburgh. The captain will have familiar company with center Evgeni Malkin, 36, and defenseman Kris Letang, 35, each returning on a new contract.
There was little drop-off from the core three last season.
Crosby tied linemate Jake Guentzel for the team lead in points with 84 (31 goals, 53 assists) in 69 games; Letang led the defensemen with an NHL career-high 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists) in 78 games. Malkin still averaged more than a point per game, with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 41 games after having offseason knee surgery.
They’ve delivered three Stanley Cup championships (2009, 2016, 2017) and 16 straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. The Penguins believe Crosby, Malkin and Letang remain their best chance to be competitive.
This one sort of answers itself, as the Pens had no real choice but to attempt to prop open the window with their aging, but still very good players. The length of the deals might make this a question to circle back to in 2025 or 2026, but for now — of course Pittsburgh had to keep their best players.
The most controversial or perhaps the most reasonable question will be around what Evgeni Malkin can provide in his golden years as a player. Which, as always, even by a large chunk of the fanbase that sees him most, it’s incredible just how much Malkin’s contributions tend to be overlooked.
Still in disbelief Evgeni Malkin didn't make that Top 100 list 5 years ago. How does a group of hockey people not put Geno on that list?! He never plays a full season (perhaps one of his only blemishes) but he's one of the best players we've ever seen. pic.twitter.com/GdxKB7IPZP— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) August 30, 2022
Injuries and missing games are a factor, but let’s also put into perspective just how much that amounts to. Malkin has missed 4, 14, 14, 23 and 41 games in the last five seasons. The majority of the large numbers in the previous two years were due to the knee injury suffered in 2021. For the portion of 2021-22 where Malkin was healthy starting in January, he played in 41 out of a possible 47 games through the rest of the season. Considering that four of those games were self-imposed due to suspension, his ability to be in the lineup last year was impressive — overlooking the knee rehab that is no longer an issue.
With all this in mind, the Malkin availability fears and negatives are possibly being talked up too much. Is he likely to miss around 10-15 games in 2022-23? Yes. Is that still worth keeping on at a $6.1 million cap hit? Beyond a doubt.
2. Is Tristan Jarry the answer?
Jarry became the unquestioned No. 1 goalie in 2020-21, after two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 7, 2020. In two seasons since, he has yet to match his predecessor’s postseason success.
In the regular season, Jarry has been solid, with a 93-47-13 record, 2.57 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in six NHL seasons. But he is 2-6 with a 3.00 GAA and .891 save percentage in the playoffs.
A lower-body injury kept Jarry out of the first six games this past postseason before returning with 26 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Because of that, Jarry has yet been able to prove he can help lead past the regular season.
By the numbers, Jarry was a top-10 goalie in the league last season. He was probably the Pens’ first half MVP (apologies, Jake Guentzel!) due to his consistent and impressive play in net for just about every game.
It surely is a question about what Jarry will do in the playoffs, and whether or not he can play another 50+ games as a starter and be healthy come post-season time. But he bounced back from the terrible 2021 Islanders series and was a quality netminder for 2021-22. In my eyes, the question isn’t “can Jarry be good in the playoffs” so much as it is just “will he be able to be 100% for them”?
3. Can Mike Sullivan lead Pittsburgh to a series win?
After being hired Dec. 12, 2015, Sullivan won the Stanley Cup in each of his first two seasons. But the Penguins haven’t won a playoff series since defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2018 Eastern Conference First Round.
Sullivan remains well respected in the locker room. Recent regular seasons have been defined by his ability to keep the Penguins consistently competitive despite injuries to high-profile players. But that has been met with being immediately eliminated from the postseason.
At this point, keeping the playoff streak alive might not be enough. It’s time for Sullivan to deliver another lengthy run.
“We try to look at each experience as objectively as we can,” Sullivan said. “Remove some of the emotion that’s associated with these experiences. … It’s my job to coach these guys. We care about them a lot.”
This feature dropped before yesterday’s news about Sullivan’s contract extension through 2027, which pretty much ends all debate there. All the talk from the managers and executives above Sullivan, from GM Ron Hextall to Team President Brian Burke (and now yesterday, Fenway Sports Group highest ups John Henry and Tom Werner) all have said consistently and repeatedly that they are super-impressed with the work Sullivan has done and consider him to be one of the best — if not the best — coach in the league.
A stable organization doesn’t pull an about-face so soon after a long extension to want to remove that coach, at least without something very catastrophic happening.
If the Pens’ season doesn’t end well next year, it is not going to be the head coach that takes the fall for the team’s shortcomings.
In this situation, that makes a lot of sense. The Penguins get quality instruction, organization and a proven successful scheme from Sullivan. Whether they succeed or fail comes down to the player and injury inputs that either execute it or are unable to do so.
With due respect to Wes’ feature, which by nature is a general view and broad perspective for the league-wide fans, the specific questions I’m interested in seeing are:
#1: What does the blueline look like?
The Pens did “keep the band together”, but they also will have three new defensemen this season too. Jeff Petry’s addition will add a consistent and better player to the second pair than the team has had in ages. Jan Rutta coming over from a successful organization brings some size. Then there’s maybe the one honest spot up for grabs in training camp as to who rounds out the lineup and the roster with maybe two spots open between Ty Smith, P.O. Joseph, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman to compete for.
Pittsburgh’s defense will be fascinating, there’s some young talent in the mix with Smith and Joseph. There’s the vet everyone either counts out or forgets about in Ruhwedel, who just steadily and quietly always does a very sound job. It appears Friedman could be the victim of a numbers game, through no real fault of his own, then again appearances can be deceiving with the potential of injuries in the mix.
What does the Pens’ blueline look like on October 13th on opening night against Arizona? Maybe more importantly, what does it look like by Game 20 or 40 or 60? Which players will rise and fall? How much of a boost/change will all the movement have?
#2: How effective will the third line be?
In just over the last calendar year, Ron Hextall has made some moves that stand out with the singings of Brock McGinn (who has three years remaining at an annual $2.75 million cap hit) and Jeff Carter (two years remaining, $3.125m) and Kasperi Kapanen (two years, $3.2m). This could make up the Pens’ third line, and are also three of their most inefficient contracts on the team after a soft free agent market had similar or perhaps better players sign for a fraction of those salaries.
All three of those players had disappointing or unfulfilling seasons last year, to varying degrees. The Pens will need bounce backs and additional contributions from them all. The team doesn’t have much, if any wiggle room under the salary cap. They have made major investments in these players and need to see it pay off. Will it?
#3: Will the worm turn with injuries?
Every season in recent memory the Pens have been haunted by injuries. Hockey is a rough sport and getting hurt is an unavoidable fact of the game sometimes, but the timing and importance of players have been rotten.
The Athletic had a really great article about what the Penguins are doing to address this, they have also invested heavily in a new support staff headlined by Teena Murray who will serve as their Senior Vice President of Integrated Performance. That’s a flowery title that means she will “oversee the Penguins’ medical, sports science, rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning teams under one umbrella”.
This new department has four staffers (three in Pittsburgh and one in Wilkes-Barre) that will direct performance and sports science, reconditioning and a physical therapist/athletic trainer.
Hextall has made it a point that the team wants to cut down on their man-games lost, and this is a nice initiative by the new ownership to spend to upgrade the resources to help in that area. They can’t do much if a puck flies up and breaks a hand or a foot, or a collision causes a knee injury. But from Sidney Crosby to Nick Bjugstad to Jason Zucker and Casey DeSmith (twice), the Pens have seen a lot of core/hernia issues in recent years.
It could be difficult to see data, but if the Pens can roll into April healthier than recent years, it would make a big difference in their playoff prospects. Health in general is always such a huge wildcard and question mark in a season, and it will be at the forefront of the organization’s mind. Will it pay off?