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Making sense of the Penguins’ new-look bottom-six forwards

They may not score a lot again, but they might be significantly better defensively.

Los Angeles Kings v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Ashley Potts/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the offseason with a new general manager, some big needs, and a pretty significant amount of salary cap space at their disposal, the likes of which they have not really seen during the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era.

Kyle Dubas had more than $20 million to spend when the offseason began even without dumping any of the team’s most problematic contracts (Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry, etc.) to create that space.

I still think there is a real chance at least one of those contracts gets dumped in the coming weeks and months, and if the Penguins are going to have any chance of acquiring somebody like Erik Karlsson, they are going to have to do exactly that.

The Penguins used that space for a flurry of signings on July 1 and a pre-draft trade that saw them acquire Reilly Smith from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Then they raised eyebrows by re-signing starting goalie Tristan Jarry to a five-year contract.

They also added defender Ryan Graves as a Brian Dumoulin replacement to — in theory — occupy the spot next to Kris Letang on the top defense pairing.

And then they brought in a series of bottom-six forwards to hopefully address the bottom-six issue that helped ruin the 2022-23 season.

There is much debate over all of those moves. But I want to focus on the forward additions because they might have the biggest impact (as of now) on whether or not the Penguins are able to get back to the playoffs and do something this season.

Given all of the salary cap space the Penguins had when the offseason began it created a sense that they might have the ability to add something very significant to the roster.

Smith might qualify as significant, but he is essentially a replacement for Jason Zucker. That is essentially a lateral move.

Given the number of short-term, low-risk bets that were signed by players around the league in free agency (like Matt Duchene for one year, $3 million, Max Pacioretty for one year, $2 million and Tyler Bertuzzi at one-year, $5 million) it is worth asking if the Penguins could have been possibilities for moves like that or if they tried for them.

Or if they made some calls about a player like Alex DeBrincat or a significant goalie upgrade.

Instead, they went for lower-level players like Noel Acciari, Lars Eller and Matt Nieto to help round out their forward group.

These are not really headline-grabbing moves.

They also might not be the type of moves that I would have imagined in my head.

All three players are over the age of 30, and along with Smith add to an already aging roster that is full of players on the wrong side of 30.

They are also not really game-changers or potential difference-makers offensively.

The biggest problem with the 2022-23 Penguins was that when their top-two lines were not on the ice during 5-on-5 play, the team was absolutely steamrolled both in terms of its ability to control play and its ability to outscore opponents.

When neither Crosby or Malkin was on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Penguins were outscored 49-71 and controlled just around 48 percent of the expected goals, while allowing 2.60 expected goals per 60 minutes.

It was a terrible performance by the revolving door of pieces that Ron Hextall and Brian Burke had assembled.

It is a group that clearly needed change. Dubas, in just a few days, has provided a lot of it.

But how much better is that group? If at all?

The one thing I will say about the new faces on the bottom-six is that there does seem to be one common theme with all of them. Acciari, Eller and Nieto can all defend at a pretty high level. They may not score a lot of goals — Eller in particular may be finished as a serious offensive threat — but they can still all do a really good job preventing teams from putting the puck in the net.

Below is a look at the expected goal numbers (during 5-on-5 play) of the new additions, the bottom-six players from a year ago that are no longer part of the team, and the bottom-six players that — as of now — are still on the roster.

The new faces, generally speaking, look to be defensive upgrades over most of the options from a year ago. That is especially true when it comes to Eller and Acciari.

If they can find a way to dump Granlund and simply scratch Carter (easier said than done, and fact is they are both still on the roster) that could potentially remove the five least impactful (and six of the bottom seven) defensive forwards from last year’s bottom-six options.

The new faces all rate significantly better than just about all of them.

Granted, Archibald and Poehling rated favorably defensively as well, but both of them had such small sample sizes (while also never really showing numbers like that in their career) that it could just be random noise.

It seems like the approach here from Dubas and the Penguins is to let the top-six and power play carry the bulk of the load offensively, and then depend on the bottom-six to simply not give it away by being a seive defensively. Last year’s bottom-six not only struggled to score goals, it also gave up entirely too many. And that also extended over to the penalty kill were the bulk of those players also received significant ice time.

If you are not going to score goals. You better not give up any, either. The Penguins seemed to put a bigger priority this offseason on the latter (and Smith and Graves will also help in that regard).

I do not know if this is the best path to take. And I am not sure if it is the path I would have taken or expected. But there at least seems to be some method to the madness and a plan for how the roster is going to look. That alone is different from the Ron Hextall era where everything just seemed to be haphazardly pieced together depending on the general manager’s vibe and mood when he woke up each morning.

At this point it is still July 6 and there are a couple of months remaining before the team reports for training camp. Whether it is Erik Karlsson or somebody else I still think there is another move or two to be made this offseason. Until then, the biggest thing we can say about this offseason is that Dubas has tried to build a roster that is significantly tougher to score against than it was a year ago at this time.