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Lineup differences in an off-season of change for the Penguins

The Penguins are looking a lot different than this time last year

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Kyle Dubas has served as a massive agent of change for the Penguins in his first few months on the job. Training camp will shake out the finishing touches on just how the roster will be. It could potentially include the most differences in Penguin history from one season to the next, depending on who wins jobs. Saying that and reading that is one thing, but the levels of difference might not really set in until seeing how much has changed.

The Pens open their regular season in now less than a month on October 10th against Chicago. Last year, the season opened on October 13th. To get a visual indication of just how different things are and how much has been altered, this was the lineup being used:

Six forwards from last year’s opening night lineup are no longer with the club. Another in Jake Guentzel is not expected to be in the opening night lineup after off-season ankle surgery. The bottom-six is almost completely turned over, and probably would have been 100% different if not for Jeff Carter’s contractual clauses that have him bound to the roster.

On defense, half of the blueliners who suited up are out of the organization and P.O Joseph’s game spot could be up for grabs if Ty Smith wins the job away. In goal, there’s a new backup goalie.

The exciting times of the summer have been driven by the promise and expectation of boosts from the incoming players, headlined of course by what the Pens hope is a seismic addition of Erik Karlsson to the mix. The adds of Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves will be massive as well, and to a lesser degree the bevy of defensive-minded lower line forwards ought to revamp and give a new vibe when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on the bench catching their breath for their next shift.

That shocking amount of difference in 12 months aside, the look back to the opening game lineup in 2021 for how Pittsburgh was lining up in October 2021 to start that season might draw gasps at this point.

This lineup, defying logic and expectation, somehow won 6-2 on the road against the then-2x defending Cup champion Lightning. (Two goals were empty netters to push the score to blowout territory, but the game was controlled by Pittsburgh just the same). NHL hockey!

The most jarring aspect of that is that Crosby and Malkin were on the shelf at that time for off-season surgeries of their own, but the Pens of October 2021 are nearly unrecognizable to the group that will get together officially next Thursday to kick off training camp. There are only three forwards still in the mix (and one of them is Carter, who as mentioned is never too far out of mind for the reason why he still remains), beyond which leaves just Bryan Rust and Drew O’Connor as opening night 2021 forwards still around two years later. Even adding in Crosby, Malkin and Guentzel as the franchise cornerstones, the supporting cast from then to now is almost entirely changed up.

A tenet of Ron Hextall’s roster construction was patience and plugging in a few holes but more or less giving the team in place a long period of time to go, with maybe a Rickard Rakell added here, or a Jeff Petry over there. This style of roster management flew in the face of the Jim Rutherford days, where the Pens’ roster was frequently turned over around the franchise centerpieces in a dizzying display of players coming and going.

It’s early yet, but Dubas’ penchant for wheeling and dealing is definitely more in the Rutherford class than the Hextall philosophy. That isn’t likely to changed based on recent history- despite being at the cap limits, Dubas continued to aggressively make in-season moves last year to add players like Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn and Sam Lafferty to his former team last year.

Should it continue to those levels, the opening night roster coming up in a month can more accurately be seen as a starting point than a finished product as Dubas and the Pens navigate another NHL campaign and look to make it back to the playoffs. Nothing is ever totally the same for very long in the NHL, but seeing the Pens and their roster go through so many changes in the last 12 months with plenty of new faces could lead to a freshening of the tone and tenor of the team as of late.