After the season ending loss to the Blackhawks all the attention is on how the Penguins will miss the playoffs for the first time in 17ish years. Sadness, disappointment and frustration inevitably lead to finger pointing and the blame game, and certainly several people from management down to coach and players deserve immense criticism – we all know who they are and why. And it truly is sad; as a fan of only about 10-15 years in my early 20s, I have never watched an NHL playoff season without the Penguins in it (how spoiled!). We all knew this day was coming, but perhaps not so soon. After the Penguins resigned Malkin and Letang last summer (a process that was undoubtedly far too dramatic and uncertain), it seemed like a given not only that the Penguins sought to remain competitive but also would be able to, at least for the next few seasons as the big three finished their careers. I guess that's my fault for being presumptuous, whoops. Of course, the Penguins depth issues continuously reared their ugly heads as the year went on and the Penguins won’t compete for a championship this year. What’s sadder than missing the playoffs – and what I think has been at least somewhat lost in the slow downfall that culminated in the worst regular season loss most of us have ever seen – is that things are not likely to get better for the Penguins moving forward.
The Penguins do not stack up well against other teams in the conference. We know that based on their performance against division rivals and Atlantic teams this year. We also know who the best teams in the Metro are – CAR, NYR, NJD – and those teams will continue to control the top of the standings over the next few years. The Devils are particularly threatening as they will take a borderline division-winning roster and add elite prospects Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec and Alex Holtz over the next year or so.
An optimistic take would rank the Penguins as the fourth best team in the division, but that is no guarantee. Who knows how competitive the Islanders will be going forward? No one ever really has high expectations for them, but they have a top 5 (top 3?) goalie in Ilya Sorokin and great pieces on defense in Pelech, Pulock, Mayfield and Noah Dobson. I have never had as much of a problem with the Islanders’ forward group as others seem to, and while they do still lack the high end, game-breaking talent, the combination of Horvat, Barzal, Lee and Nelson can certainly provide enough offense to maintain a wild card spot. They are not too far removed from back-to-back conference finals playoff runs, and their roster has largely remained the same since. Can we confidently say that the Penguins are better than the Islanders? If they don’t lose every head-to-head match up like this year maybe the Penguins beat them in the standings? Maybe.
Ignoring the irrelevant Flyers and Blue Jackets, that leaves the Washington Capitals who, though we might not like to admit it, are in a similar position as the Penguins. Washington missed the playoffs same as Pittsburgh, though to their credit they acknowledged their fate early on and sold off some pieces at the deadline. They will certainly face questions heading into next season – they’re up there in age with the Penguins and may move on from Evgeny Kuznetsov – but still have enough talent that where in relation to the Penguins they fall in the standings next season isn’t very obvious to me.
Ok, so the Penguins are like the fifth (fourth if we’re lucky) best team in the Metro next year. Hooray. I can’t imagine Crosby or Malkin would be too happy with that given where they are in their careers. The good news is that they’re competing for one of two wild card spots, and those spots can go to two teams in the same division. The bad news is that the Atlantic could send five teams to the playoffs next year. We know how good Toronto and Tampa are each year. Boston will regress and may lose Bergeron/Krejci but I can’t imagine they fall all the way out of the playoff race with that defense and that goaltending and all that talent on offense they’ll still have.
Behind those three teams is the up-and-coming Sabres who boast the fourth best offense in the entire league this year in terms of GPG. Buffalo missed out on the playoff race because of their struggles in net and on defense. If they add a legitimate goalie (and the internet definitely seems to love the new guy Devon Levi) and one or two quality defenders behind first overall picks Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin, all of a sudden Buffalo could compete for a 2/3 seed in the Atlantic. And then there’s the Senators; despite disappointing this year, they’ll get a full season of Chabot/Chychrun on defense and an underrated top six with Stutzle, Giroux, Tkachuk and Debrincat in addition to youngsters Drake Batherson and Shane Pinto. Add in the Panthers (who may or may not improve next year I don’t know if they'll change significantly), and now you have six teams in the Atlantic and at least five in the Metro who all intend to take one of the eight playoff spots next Spring.
How on earth do the Penguins plan on staying competitive with the roster they have? Too many teams are already better than them, and the teams who aren’t are improving quickly while the Penguins…give second rounders for Mikael Granlund to get like one secondary assist every couple of games? It’s not exactly a winning strategy. It didn’t work this year, but what options do the Penguins have to improve? They are stuck with deadweights Carter and Granlund and have a big giant hole at LD behind Pettersson. We all should pray that Petry’s struggles are contained to this season; can we trust that the same will be true for Jarry? Letting Zucker walk would be a disaster, but Hextall’s unpredictability means that he could overpay and overextend Zucker, miraculously agree to a fair deal or not sign him at all. The good news is the Penguins will have considerable cap space to work with should they try to fill some holes in free agency. The bad news is that we can’t trust the GM to use the cap space well and we have no idea what the plan is.
Sad as it may seem, the Penguins have yet to hit bottom. Many fans have looked to a Bruins team that missed the playoffs a few years ago only to bounce back to where they are now as inspiration that one bad season does not completely sink a team with aging superstars. While I appreciate the optimism, can we honestly conclude that the Penguins are on a similar trajectory? The 2023 troubles, as frustrating as they are, may only be a sign of what’s to come. Here’s to hoping I’m totally wrong!