If there was one word that was used by Penguins’ general manager Kyle Dubas that stood out on Monday when he spoke a day after making one of the biggest trades in franchise history, it would be “belief”.
Here is the 20-minute media availability in full:
Dubas: "There's a lot of work to be done. The team missed the playoffs last year. There's no dancing around it. We tried to supplement as best we can, and I know that there'll be people that doubt the group. We have to go out and prove it starting the first day of training camp." pic.twitter.com/OuHrVETOd5— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) August 7, 2023
Being hired by an ambitious ownership group who wanted to compete in the final days of the Sidney Crosby window, Dubas knew he would have to make a bold mark to set the team up. Whether the risk pans out or not, the Pens are going to take their shot.
“[It’s] affirmation we believe they can contend for a championship,” Dubas said. “If we have a chance to add him, we’re going to do it, because we believe in this group. There’s lots of people who doubt the group; those criticisms are fair. We have our belief, it’s up to us and go out and execute.”
For Dubas, that execution begins with the management team.
“That’s on me to lead the way, and get the group what I think they need. It was a unique opportunity to add an elite player like Erik, where we had to part with some assets, but gained more flexibility and added him on at the same time.”
That’s the quiet, confident swag that Dubas operates with. The Pens are in a unique position with an aging cast of stars. Alright, let’s be real, it’s an old team; Crosby turned 36 yesterday. Evgeni Malkin is 37 as of last week. Kris Letang is 35 and with all he’s been through if he was an automobile, you could charitably say he has “high mileage”. Most of the other key players on the team are in their 30’s. Even the players that are younger (Marcus Pettersson, Tristan Jarry, Jake Guentzel, etc) aren’t exactly considered young by NHL standards any more.
So, yeah, it’s an old team. The end is much closer than the beginning. Why not believe in the greatness that’s been on display the last 15+ years and go with it until you can’t go any longer?
When asked how Letang would feel about a younger and even more dynamic right-shot defenseman joining the team, Dubas was effusive in praise.
“Unsurprisingly with Kris,” Dubas said, “it was, very clearly, whatever is going to make us better and help us win...This process has also shown me why it was appealing to come here, because Sully, the group of guys that have won here all together - that’s all they care about. They’re not worried about anything other than winning.”
That last statement now applies from ownership to management to players.
And it might be seen as some Ted Lasso Season 1 style corny-but-inspiring messaging, but it also doesn’t ring hollow. If you don’t have belief and vision and commitment from the top, (as the Pens have found out since Jim Rutherford regrettably lost the plot and his magic touch in the summer of 2017), you don’t even stand a chance.
Maybe they actually do or maybe they actually don’t, but for now it at least is comforting to feel like the Penguins aren’t just saying they want to compete, but actually moving heaven and earth to add an elite component to the team to help them do just that.
Dubas also communicated an update about Jake Guentzel, following news that broke last week of ankle surgery for the talented winger. The best news is that it doesn’t appear Guentzel is expected out perhaps as long as first feared, and maybe only for the first handful of regular season games. Embedding a tweet with a quote, shoutout @PensInsideScoop because Twitter has been so unreliable as of late, and the whole thought is interesting.
A thorough answer there nips any wanna-be contrarian’s invented conspiracy theory in the bud about Guentzel potentially being reckless with his training or the team not tracking his progress. It also provides answers to a good question about the timing of a late-summer surgery and why the procedure wasn’t decided on earlier in the off-season. Good stuff there.
The enlightening part is that Dubas indicated Guentzel would be missing only “the first couple games of the year”, less than anticipated based on the phrasing of the initial press release. That means no long-term injury reserve for Guentzel, which would have required missing 10+ games. It also means the Pens might have to get creative with waiver usage on how to gain salary cap compliance.
Despite that, Dubas said he intends to have a normal 22-player roster to start the season with 13 forwards, seven defenders and two goalies.
Dubas: "We aren't going to be afraid to use waivers to get flexibility... We need to continue to have competition. Right now we have room for 22 on opening night."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) August 7, 2023
The Penguins can’t waive Jeff Carter without his approval due to his no movement clause, but that quote could put several players in doubt for their fit and salary on the roster. But what about Rem Pitlick and his $1.1 million? Could even Drew O’Connor and/or Matt Nieto and their respective $925k and $900k salaries be trimmed for savings by cheaper players depending on how camp competition goes?
The door is open to it, Dubas stated he was not worried about potentially losing a player to waivers that they couldn’t fit and would wish them well on the way out as it would help their career. (Dubas also likely knows the statistic that most players who are claimed on waivers early in the season are waived again before too much longer, giving him a good chance to get them back again before too long anyways).
Either way, when the Pens were considered $3+ million over the cap by tracking websites earlier in the summer, Dubas was unworried. He was operating knowing he would try to move salary around in the Karlsson trade, and he did. Now the Pens are close but a little over the cap, and Dubas remains outwardly unbothered about having the space to have a full team.
Because if Pens fans have learned anything in the past few days it’s that if Dubas believes, maybe they have reason to do so too.