The most frustrating thing about the Pittsburgh Penguins missing the playoffs during the 2022-23 season is that the vast majority of their top players not only performed to their expected levels, they actually exceeded them.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin played all 82 games and were great.
Jake Guentzel scored 36 goals.
Rickard Rakell and Jason Zucker were both significantly better and more impactful than even the most optimistic person could have been about their performance going into the season.
Marcus Pettersson took a big step forward and had his best season as a pro, and was arguably their best and most consistent all-around defenseman during the regular season.
The players that you expected to be good, were good.
The down year as a team was not the result of injuries to top players, or top players underperforming, or anything along those lines. It was directly the result of management putting together an inferior team around the good players.
There are not many players here that are looking like potential bounce-back candidates that can reverse the team’s record on the ice.
That is one of the things that does concern me about looking ahead to next season. There is not really much room for improvement from within. Are Crosby and Malkin going to play 82 games again? Even if they do, how much better are they realistically going to be?
The same goes for Guentzel, Rakell, Pettersson and Zucker if he gets re-signed. Nobody out of this group had a bad year, and if anything, it is more likely that some regression comes into play for some of them.
So who is a realistic potential bounce-back candidate next season, and how much more can reasonably be expected?
The most likely bouncebacks
Kris Letang: I am not going to say that Letang had a bad season by any means, but he did have some consistency issues (especially defensively) and the first part of his season seemed to get derailed when Brian Dumoulin was playing at his worst next to him. He also had an especially difficult year off the ice, and was the one core player that did miss time. He specifically mentioned that he had a difficult time being focussed this season, and given everything he went through, that is understandable. With a fresh start I think there is still an elite player here. Him getting back to that level will certainly help.
Bryan Rust: This might be the one internal candidate for significant improvement. I wrote about Rust specifically last week, and there are some indicators that he could be in line for a jump next season. His underlying numbers and shot-generation numbers were still excellent, especially during 5-on-5 play, while a lot of his offensive issues seemed to come from power play struggles and a significant drop in shooting percentage. If the latter part corrects itself a little bit, you might still have something here.
It would be nice, but do not expect it
Jeff Petry: This was one of the Ron Hextall moves that I actually had high hopes for when it happened. I admit, I liked the Petry addition and thought he was going to help reshape the Penguins defense in a significant way and give them an outstanding 1-2 punch on the right side of their blue line. It did not really work out as planned, and now you have another player in his mid-30s with a significant contract. It is not that Petry was consistently bad. I think he was just .... underwhelming. He did not have the impact I hoped or expected. Honestly, I think this is just a case of what you see is what you get. What you get is an average, mid-30s defenseman with a big contract.
Mikael Granlund: I will preface this by saying the ideal outcome with Mikael Granlund is that he simply gets bought out. There is no need to bring him back and try to salvage anything from this. A buyout would actually be very beneficial for the Penguins because it would save them over $4 million against the cap this upcoming season, over $3 million the year after that, and only carry a $1.8 million empty number in each of the two years after that. Yeah, those two years at the end would be costly, but the Penguins need the $4 million and $3 million over the next two years more than they need that $1.8 million the two years after that.
Just rip off the band-aid and buy him out.
But if the new front office does not want to do that, the next best hope is that Granlund actually provides something for his $5 million salary cap hit.
That seems unrealistic, though. It is certainly possible that he could provide more than he did in his initial 20 games with the team, but it probably will not be much more. He is slow, does not shoot, does not shoot well, is not a goal-scorer, is not good defensively and does not really fit anywhere on the roster. Maybe he sees a small shooting percentage increase and scores a couple of more goals, but it is not going to be anything significant.
The best bounce-back here is if he plays for another team.
Jeff Carter: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? There is no evidence to make anybody think that is realistic or possible.
Possible bounce-back for another team
Tristan Jarry: The Penguins are in a brutal situation with Jarry. When he was healthy in the first half of the season, he played well. When he was healthy a year ago, he played well. He has showed several flashes of being a very good, above average starting goalie in the NHL. Hell, the guy has played in two All-Star games.
The key part of that paragraph, though, is “when healthy.” He has not had enough of that over the past two years, and when he returned from injury this season he was brutal down the stretch.
Combine that with the lack of any sort of postseason success and it makes you wonder how they could comfortably invest in him with a long-term contract.
But tell me you can not see a scenario here where Jarry leaves in free agency, signs with another team, has a healthy year, and plays like the goalie the Penguins hoped he would be? It is not a stretch.
Without much help on the horizon from the farm system, this all means any improvement is going to need to fall on the new general manager and front office to simply find better players from outside the organization. It is doable, especially with some salary cap flexibility that could increase even more with some strategic buyouts, but it is going to be a difficult job.