The rookies have started practice and the big boys are officially back on Thursday for the Penguins. As the next season approaches, here’s a handy guide for what to expect with the team, starting with what should be a team strength: the forwards.
The Penguins return almost everyone up front from last season. Only Evan Rodrigues and Brian Boyle played NHL playoff games last spring and departed the organization in the off-season.
As briefly mentioned yesterday, the Pens’ health status up front could be much better to start the season too. All of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel did not play in the regular season opener last year. There’s still a few weeks away from opening night, but the Pens are coming into camp in a much healthier place at least compared to last year.
Pittsburgh is good, but growing old down the middle, with the average age of their top three centers north of 36. However, the unique 1-2 punch of Crosby and Malkin has been the not-so-secret recipe for success for the Pens for 16 years, and that won’t be changing any time soon after Malkin’s contract extension to tie him to Pittsburgh for four more years.
The wings offer an intriguing mix of talent, but also some concern. Jake Guentzel is a known quantity and one of the league’s quiet stars. Bryan Rust has joined him over the past three years as a point-per-game player that adds speed and skill to the team.
After that, there are some reasonable questions. How will Rickard Rakell fare in his first full season in Pittsburgh? The stage is set for a big year, and the opportunity to shine will be there, but he needs to produce more than the last few years on a poor Anaheim team. Jason Zucker’s star-crossed Penguin adventure reaches its final season, with the player perhaps primed to finally show out in a contract year. Kasperi Kapanen has been up and down and now is looking to get back up again.
Then at the bottom of the lineup, Brock McGinn and Teddy Blueger are luxury pieces for the Pens to have. They can be excellent fourth line defensive-minded forwards that are also capable of temporarily moving up in the lineup should the need require it.
There wasn’t a lot of roster turnover up front for the Pens after keeping Malkin, Rust, Rakell, Kapanen and even getting Heinen back from free agency. General manager Ron Hextall didn’t have much room or needs, and simply made a couple of low-key additions. The Pens got Josh Archibald in the high-energy, penalty-killing specialist type of fourth line role that he found relative success in Arizona and Edmonton during 2017-21. If you close your eyes a lot and squint, maybe Archibald will look like a right-handed Brandon Tanev out there, if he can re-gain some of that finishing ability from prior seasons that was gone in 2021-22.
The Pens will also offer a second chance and change of scenery to former first round pick Ryan Poehling. Poehling failed to gain traction and find a groove in Montreal, but has the size and can offer some badly needed center depth. Center depth for a team with some very old centers up front, let’s again point out. In a favorable outcome, Poehling could be something of this season’s version of Boyle.
Organizational deep depth
With 13 names above and a salary cap squeeze in place, barring injury all of the younger players could be on the wrong side of the numbers game at the end of training camp. While it is feasible any of them could also have the September’s of their lives and play to the “I’m too good to be sent to the AHL” level, that is also a mighty steep hill to climb given the depth ahead.
Still, it’s a good bet that all the players on this list will have a strong chance be called on at some point this season to play NHL games as an injury call-up, or perhaps by showing down in Wilkes-Barre that they are too good not to have on the NHL roster.
There’s also the ever-present risk of a training camp injury that could instantly change the calculus of the numbers ahead of them as well.
Drew O’Connor is seemingly the prospect to watch the closest in this grouping. He is the player that coaches and management most often rave about with his 6’3 205 pound frame, the strides he has made to become a better skater and his excellent play in the AHL already (32 points in 33 games last season).
Sam Poulin, the team’s 2019 first rounder, is still young at age-21, but also finds himself with a bit of a ticking clock to make it to the NHL. Questions still seem to remain about just exactly what he is: a scoring left winger? A center with checking ability and some offensive pop? His career has taken off lately in the second half of the AHL season and now entering rookie camp as a center, but to some extent it really feels like the team and the player are both trying to figure out just exactly what the best placement is for his future.
Valtteri Puustinen led WB/S in points last year and had a point in his only NHL game last year. He could have the most to offer of any unestablished forward in the organization, yet the cruel irony is he also has probably the most blocked path to the NHL. As a 5’8, 185 pound offensive-minded right winger, Puustinen is not likely to make the NHL as a fourth liner. It would seem he needs an injury to open the door for him to shuffle in somewhere, but then again several Penguin wingers (Zucker, Rust) have been known to miss significant amounts of time.
Deeper down the charts and a level below this group would include players like Drake Caggiula, Alex Nylander and Nathan Legare. If they’re on the radar at all, it’s only barely there and they would need to drastically out-perform reasonable expectations to make a case to be a factor this season.
A lot of the Pens’ forward group are the closest thing to sure things in the NHL. Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, Rust — there’s no concern these players won’t have great seasons. (Might be a concern of how much time they might miss, but that’s a horse of a different color when it comes to questions that can’t be answered in pre-season).
The biggest question around the Pens’ forward group is just how much — or little — their secondary supporting players will kick in. Especially on the Malkin line, where last year Heinen and McGinn got opportunities (somewhat out of necessity, and also out of playing well).
The difference between good and great for Pittsburgh could well come down to the seasons that players like Rakell, Zucker and Kapanen have. If all of these players have very strong years, the Pens are going to be one of the top offensive producing teams in the league and likely have a very good outcome for their regular season.
If some or all of these three crucial swing forwards disappoint, be it through injury or ineffectiveness, it could be a frustrating year that sees the McGinn’s and Heinen’s get looks in scoring situations.
This summer the Pens ensured they will remain a star-laden veteran team for the foreseeable future when they re-signed Malkin, Rust, Rakell (with offensive-minded defender Kris Letang deserving a shout-out here too).
The course has been set, the Pens have Crosby and Guentzel surrounded by a rich and deep cast of forwards to work with. They are still asking a lot of a player like Carter, and counting on others like Zucker and Kapanen to come through more than they have in the past, but overall the forwards are aligned with how a Mike Sullivan team should be. They are all at least average skaters, many of them plus skaters, though team-speed isn’t as prevalent as it once was compared to the rest of the league.
The forwards are skilled: all 12 in the projected starting lineup recently has recorded double-digit goal seasons in the NHL. Most of the top-nine forwards could/should be near the 20 goal range, granted they have the benefit of playing a full season and play to expectation. Up the ladder further, there are very special players in Guentzel and Malkin. And they’re led by the greatest hockey player of this generation. The strength of the Penguins has long been dictated by their forward group, and that shouldn’t be changing this season.