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The five Penguins players I am most curious about, 2022-23 edition

Rickard Rakell for a full season on Crosby or Malkin’s wing? This should be fun

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Colorado Avalanche vs Pittsburgh Penguins

Last year at about this time I did the same article about which individual players that I’m most interested in seeing on the ice, seems like a good Friday exercise to go through.

Evgeni Malkin

Last year Malkin was first on the list, and he’s staying there this year as well. Now at age-36, Malkin got a contract and had the full ability to rest and train this summer — not focus on surgery and then rehabbing his knee like last summer.

Will it pay off for Malkin? Does he have that one more season of dominance, like Mario’s 91 point year in 67 games that happened (shockingly 20 years ago) in 2002-03? Lemieux did that at age-37, providing more evidence that the generational types don’t comply with the aging curves that mere mortals do.

Malkin enters the season with his health, he’s got his contract figured out, and between some combination of Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell, Jason Zucker and even Kasperi Kapanen, he should have some of the most talented and balanced pair of wingers that he’s had in...maybe ever? What kind of show does Malkin have to put on for this season? The 1,000th game ceremony alone should be a better pre-game than most of the actual games this year.

Rickard Rakell

On one hand, it is going to be nothing but fun to watch Rakell have the opportunity to play a full season with the Penguins. He fit in great with either Malkin or Sidney Crosby in small glimpses last season, and clearly is a player with great hands and offensive ability to score goals and also set them up.

On the other hand, Rakell (at age-29) was handed out a six-year contract to stay with the Pens. Aging curves for scoring wingers can strike quick — The Athletic’s model gives him just a 43% chance to have his value exceed his contract this year, and this year is the high-water mark before he gets older.

Rakell did score 20 goals last season, but it’s now been going on five seasons since he has hit 30 goals. Just last season he went 21 straight games without scoring a goal with the Ducks.

Rakell left a really positive memory in Pittsburgh with a very nice first impression with his level of play, but can he get back to the type of player who was filling the net to the tune of 30 goal and 60ish point seasons? While every goal scorer can be streaky, surely a player that talented on a team with this kind of skill isn’t going to go a full quarter of a season without a goal?

Jeff Petry

At 34-years old with three more seasons to go on his contract, Jeff Petry fits the mold of the Pens’ off-season perfectly. He’s talented, very good, on the older side and locked in for years to come. At a certain point, that might add up to be too much, but for 2022-23, Petry is almost exactly what the doctor ordered for the Pens.

And that’s the inconvenient little secret that their second pair of defenders hasn’t been very good (at least on a championship level) in quite some time. When the 2021 playoffs happened, it was Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci together in that role. Even though that disaster was Jarry-fueled, that pair was on the ice for a high rate of goals against, and just begging to be exposed.

John Marino’s offense went away, Marcus Pettersson has shrunk every year as the games have gone on. The well-documented Mike Matheson experience had as many lows as it did highs.

Enter, Jeff Petry. A little long in the tooth, but a legitimate 22+ minute per night player, and one capable of anchoring that second pair. Prior to last season, Petry scored double-digit goals in the previous four campaigns, his offensive prowess is exactly the type of “jump in the play and make something happen” type that thrives under Mike Sullivan.

Another fascinating aspect of Petry’s season will also be, who the partner is to round out that second pair. The default answer to this point is Pettersson. But Pettersson has never really captured the full trust and enthusiasm of the coaching staff. Will it be someone else, at least by the time the season gets serious?

Brian Dumoulin

It took Brian Dumoulin a while to develop, but then when he graduated to the NHL full-time in 2015-16, he was almost instantly a first pair player and partner for Kris Letang. From there, Dumoulin turned in steady season after steady season. Never did much offensively with the puck, but otherwise gave little to complain about as a defender with the perfect instincts and ability to lay back and cover for the four talented other players on the ice (all of whom, let’s face it, are mainly think all offense, all the time).

Many point towards the worm turning for Dumoulin in December 2019, when he injured an ankle. Since then, to be sure, close observers have noticed little occurrences adding up. Maybe a pass getting through Dumo that in earlier years he would automatically cut off. Or a failure to move laterally enough resulting in getting left a step behind as an opponent worked to the net. Or, getting beat with zone entries more frequently (something that data supports).

Either way, the perception and reputation of Dumoulin has fizzled a bit. That said, rumors of Dumoulin’s demise as a very good defender may be exaggerated. Especially when it comes to his consistent impact on games defensively.

Now in a contract year, what comes next for Dumoulin? A really solid season that helps get him an extension deep in his 30’s like (checks list) seemingly half of the roster? Or is this going to be his final year in Pittsburgh?

Ty Smith and/or Pierre-Olivier Joseph

With the notes above regarding Dumoulin’s impending expiring contract and Pettersson’s career not truly finding it’s maximum potential, wouldn’t you know it the Penguins just happen to have a couple of solid young left-handed defenders waiting in the wings? It’s probably no coincidence there to figure that both of these players could be key factors in the future. Despite the worries of the short-term salary cap crunch that could potentially send either of these off the NHL roster, it’s believed both are ready to play at the NHL level.

So which one gets the first crack at the lineup? Does a veteran like Chad Ruhwedel or the always-pesky Mark Friedman factor in? (Friedman played off-hand quite a bit last season, including in the playoffs instead of the Pens using Joseph in the NHL, let’s not forget).

At some point there has to be a “passing of the torch moment” with potentially one or both of Joseph and Smith finding places with the Pens in the future. Could that come as soon as now? Can Smith show his last season in New Jersey was more a poor environment than his true level of play? Will Joseph finally make the jump to the NHL full time?