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How the season went for five interesting Penguin players

Checking in on pre-season expectations

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Way back in September, I wrote about five players that would be interesting to track this season. While the end result of the season for the Penguins remains very much in the balance, after 80 games we know enough to audit how it went for those individuals this year.

Evgeni Malkin

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.

When the Pens “kept the band together”, Malkin was probably the biggest make or break piece of that concept, considering his age and the fact that injuries were taking a toll and forcing him to miss significant time each and every season. The knee injury kept Malkin out the first half of 2021-22, and was his second major ACL reconstruction of his career.

Malkin’s performance in 2022-23 was a strong justification on why teams shouldn’t let generational talents go. He has appeared in all 80 games so far, his most since 2008-09. Malkin has put up 82 points - his second highest total for a season in the last decade. It’s been a smash success for Malkin this year.

From the writeup above, having key supporting wingers has certainly helped with both Jason Zucker and Rickard Rakell having tremendous seasons of their own. As also predicted, the pomp and circumstance around Geno’s 1,000th game was even more heart-warming than expected when the team surprised the player by flying his wife and son into Chicago and having little Nikita read the pre-game starting lineup. The game had a storybook finish, with Malkin scoring a goal in the Pens’ win.

Though overshadowed as always by Sidney Crosby, Malkin is sitting 25th in scoring in the league and exceeded all expectations with a wonderful age-36 season to demonstrate it was well worth bringing him back to end his career in Pittsburgh.

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?

Fears about Rakell’s inevitable decline on the scoring curve proved unfounded for this year. That did not materialize this season like they did for a fellow middle-aged winger in Bryan Rust. Rakell has also appeared in all 80 games so far, putting up a tidy 28 goals and 58 points so far — right in-line with his mentioned pre-season best case scenario.

Rakell’s ability to make whatever line he was playing on this season typically perform as the team’s best offensive line was a consistent and noticeable thread over the whole season. While there are no shortage of flawed decisions by Penguin management in the past two years, bringing back Rackell was undoubtedly a big win and huge plus to retain a quality player.

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

Ideally, Jeff Petry should have been for the Penguins what it is looking like that Mattias Ekholm actually is for Edmonton: a stabilizing veteran defender who can provide difference-making performances. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh. Petry had a few injury knocks and probably didn’t provide as much impact as it was expected.

Throughout team history, we’ve seen veteran defenders come in with big contracts and have uninspiring, if not outright poor first seasons in Pittsburgh (Sergei Gonchar, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Jack Johnson). Some have turned it around, some haven’t. Petry is now 35 and has a few more years on his deal, his bounce-back (or lack thereof) will figure to be a major off-season storyline.

In the big scheme of things, many entering the season we’re hoping or counting on the re-configured defense to be a source of strength or improvement for the Pens with Matheson and Marino out and Petry, Rutta, Joseph in. That hasn’t been the case and Petry was the marquee addition of the group.

Brian Dumoulin

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).

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?

At this point it might be hard to remember, but there were reports the team had some initial contract extension talks with Dumoulin prior to the season. Of all the defensemen that were traded (Marino, Matheson) or the team was willing to trade (Pettersson), Dumoulin was the one vet (well, other than Kris Letang) that they were committed to.

It ended up not going well for Dumoulin, to say the least, with a turbulent season. He’s settled into playing with Letang almost by default because his pairs with Petry and Jan Rutta struggled mightily. And even though the Dumoulin-Letang pair can be passable enough, it isn’t what it was in the mid/late 2010’s.

Through Dumoulin’s rocky level of play, at this point it is an easy pass to let him slide out to free agency and go another route to find an actual top-four left defender for next year.

It’s a sad fall that’s happened in real time before our very eyes to see Dumoulin go from probably THE most reliable defensive player on the team morph into one of the most unsteady players around.

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?

Ty Smith got left in the lurch after by all accounts a pretty fair training camp due to the number of defenders in front of him, and the salary cap. His future at this point is more cloudy than it’s ever been after a season mostly spent toiling in the AHL, which for a 23-year old is not the best of signs.

Joseph, on the other hand, got his chance to play in the NHL and didn’t flunk out at least. He played mostly a sheltered role and did fine, though attempts to play with Letang resulted in getting shelled on chances against. At the least, Joseph survived a rookie season and has proven to be NHL caliber, though likely with a ceiling of being a bottom-half of the lineup type of player.

And, ironically enough in a history repeating moment, we have a second season of Friedman playing on his off-hand while the team’s best LD prospect stays in the minors. Be it for cap or simply preference of players that is a trend that would be better off not seen again.