New general manager Kyle Dubas has had a busy start to the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason, adding five prominent players to the lineup, including Reilly Smith, Ryan Graves, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, and Matt Nieto. That list is of course pending any possible changes in goal if one of the new signings is able to beat Casey DeSmith for the backup job, and of course any potential trade for Erik Karlsson.
If the Penguins actually do land land Karlsson that would certainly be the most impactful addition of the summer. He is still a top-tier player and an all-time great at his position. He would instantly transform the defense and the identity of the team as a whole, while also potentially keeping what is left of their Stanley Cup window in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era somewhat cracked open for a little bit longer.
But that move has not happened yet, and there is no guarantee that it will.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at which offseason addition so far can potentially be the most impactful for the 2023-24 Penguins.
1. Ryan Graves, defense
Of all the moves that have been made this offseason I feel like Graves is the one we have talked about the least, which is a little weird because he signed the biggest contract of any new player.
The Penguins signed Graves to a six-year, $27 million deal.
I feel like the reaction to this was a little underwhelming because it was a significant cap hit for a player that’s not a huge impact player. And while that might be true, I don’t hate the addition of Graves and honestly think he has a chance to be aa really strong addition. Especially in the short-term over the next two or three years, which are the seasons that really matter the most for the Penguins’ timeline.
If you look at Graves’ career his numbers and impacts are ..... good. Nothing that is going to wow you, and certainly not something you want to see as a No. 1 defender. But that doesn’t mean he still can’t make an impact. What I like about Graves is that he has a track record of playing alongside top-tier talents and handling himself quite well. During his career he has spent significant minutes skating alongside Cale Makar (Colorado) and Dougie Hamilton (New Jersey) and is presumably going to get a chance to play alongside Kris Letang in Pittsburgh.
That is a big role because of the minutes Letang’s pairing gets, so you need it to be somebody that can keep pace with that style of play and not hold things back.
For the better part of the past seven years, those minutes belonged to Brian Dumoulin, and he was the perfect complement to him for most of those years. Strong defensively, a good enough skater and playmaker that it did not bring down Letang’s impacts, and somebody that could be the more “responsible” part of that pairing. As Dumoulin slowed down the past two years, however, that effectiveness started to wane and it brought back bad memories of when players like Jack Johnson, Rob Scuderi or even Brooks Orpik tried — and failed — to be the “responsible” player.
That has always been the trap the Penguins have fallen into with Letang. They used to get so desperate to pair him with a defensive-minded player to “cover for him” that it actually made things worse. Letang is at his best when he is paired with a player that can keep up with him.
That is where Graves comes in, because he not only has a track record of being that type of complement to elite, puck-moving defenders, he has a track record of playing well in those minutes.
I am optimistic this can work. Maybe not to the degree of peak Dumoulin, but certainly an upgrade over what we have seen the past two years.
2. Reilly Smith, forward
Smith is the offseason addition that has been looked at in the most positive light. He was the first major move of the Dubas era, and is arguably the best player added from outside the organization. But I am putting him second on this particular list because he doesn’t really seem like a significant upgrade over the player he is replacing (Jason Zucker).
That doesn’t mean it is a bad move or that I do not like it.
Because it is a good move and I do like it. He might be the perfect replacement for Zucker, and maybe even a marginal upgrade in some areas. But it’s just that. A replacement. Smith and Zucker were nearly identical players this past season and it is essentially the Penguins simply replacing one very good second-line winger with another very good second-line winger.
Good move, but it simply maintains the status quo in that spot.
3. Lars Eller, center
Of the four forward additions the Penguins made this offseason Eller is the one I am most intrigued by, simply because of the position he plays, the role he will have and who he might be replacing.
The biggest weakness the Penguins had this past season was in their bottom-six where they just got completely run over in every aspect of the game.
They did not score. They could not defend. They did not do anything even remotely productive. The Penguins have worked to remedy that with the additions of Eller, Acciari and Nieto. It is not necessarily the path that I would have taken, but the approach here seems to be making the bottom-six a shutdown defensive group that can at least excel in that area. The top-six and power play should carry the offense, and these guys are going to be given the task of not allowing anything.
If nothing else, it is more of a plan than anything Ron Hextall and Brian Burke had for that group.
Eller, Accairi and Nieto at least have some promising defensive impacts, and that is especially true for Eller who is still a very good defensive center. He is not going to score much — if at all — but he should still be able to help keep other teams from scoring.
Over the past three years he ranked 85th out of more than 425 forwards (minimum 1,000 minutes played) in terms of expected goals against per 60 minutes, and was still one of the league’s best defensive forwards this past season. That is very significant because assuming he replaces Carter on the third line it would represent a sizable defensive upgrade. There was so much focus on Carter’s lack of offense that it almost hid just how bad he also was defensively (where he was also one of the worst, least impactful defensive players).
Offensively they are very similar players, and while that is not ideal if Eller can provide a significant defensive upgrade — both during 5-on-5 play and on the penalty kill — I will take that from that spot. At the end of the day all I am asking for here is for the Penguins’ bottom-six forward group to not be badly outscored every night. You can do that by scoring more, or simply allowing less. Eller has a very real chance to help with the latter part.