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Penguins training camp preview: Karlsson looks to provide boost to revamped blueline

Big changes on the back-end for the Penguins this summer


After looking at the goalie position yesterday and as we count down the days (now 6!) to the start of Pittsburgh Penguins training camp, let’s set the stage for how the team is shaping up on defense.

It was the summer of change on the blueline for the Pens. The Kyle Dubas influence was felt, after chasing and finally landing Erik Karlsson in a seismic summer trade with San Jose. As a result, Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta are out. So too is Brian Dumoulin, with Dubas finding a much quicker replacement in the early minutes of July free agency to sign Ryan Graves (formerly of the New Jersey Devils) to a six-year contract that slots him into that top-four role.

Beyond the recap of player movement, there is intrigue across the board for just how the new-look defense will be setup and managed. Both Karlsson and Kris Letang have been the alpha 1D of their teams, playing 25+ minutes against top competition and taking first power play roles for at least a decade (and even longer in Letang’s case). How each will fit together as a part of the same team will be an interesting story and integration to watch as the season progresses.

There’s also the matter of aligning the new pieces in the right places. Letang and Marcus Pettersson have rarely been regularly playing together over the years. For natural reasons, pairing Pettersson with his countryman Karlsson could serve to be a wise move made even better being their styles of play would seem to be a perfect compliment. Such a move, if coach Mike Sullivan decides to try that direction, would leave Letang to join Graves as the other main pair, which has been signaled by the team as a possibility in the press conferences following Graves’ signing.

Down the lineup, there’s such as much drama, if not more for how the puzzle will come together. Due to the salary cap, the team Pens likely project to carry seven healthy defensemen on their roster. That means should everyone remain upright and ready for the start of the season on October 10th, the Pens can only fit two out of the following five names: Chad Ruhwedel, Ty Smith, Mark Pysyk, Libor Hajek and Mark Friedman.

Ruhwedel has been a truly special example of a professional survivor, not seeing the waiver wire since his first training camp in Pittsburgh in October 2016 and has found himself on the NHL roster in Pittsburgh continuously since January 2017 (save a short AHL conditioning stint during the 2018-19 season). That means going on seven full years as a lower pair/healthy scratch defender, which is a mark of his consistency and how much the coaching staff has grown to rely on him in such a role.

This camp, however, should be Ruhwedel’s toughest challenge left to find a way to continue his resiliency with the addition of Pysyk and the waiver status of Smith expiring. While an injury could always change the picture dramatically and in a heartbeat, the Pens figure to have some very tough decisions on their hands for how they want to shape the bottom part of their depth chart coming out of camp.

Pysyk and Hajek both enter Pens training camp without contracts on professional tryout agreements and needing to earn their spot in order to stick around. Pysyk offers good size and plenty of successful NHL experience, but his level of play is one of the true unknowns after suffering an Achilles tear 12 months ago in Detroit’s training camp. The news and stories about the Aaron Rodgers injury in football has painted a picture that this injury can be a serious and tough one to recover from, and even though it’s been a year for Pysyk, it can take up to 18 months for a player to really feel like themselves again, if at all.

Recovery from such an injury could mean that Pysyk fades away as a brief camp story, but if he has regained form he could seriously challenge to win a job in the upcoming weeks and end up even as a regular member of the team in a personal best case scenario.

Depth is often tested during a season, Friedman is mostly an after-thought now but still appeared in 23 NHL contests in 2022-23. Fedun even dressed for four NHL games, one of 11 different blueliners that the team had appear in a game last year. That knowledge tells us that a few call-ups and cross-state trips from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh over the course of the season for players like Friedman, Will Butcher and perhaps even Ryan Shea, depending on when and how serious the injury bug strikes.

2022 first round pick Owen Pickering is in the mix (in name only), since he is signed to an NHL contract, but not truly this fall for NHL regular season hopes. Pickering has not been skating in pre-camp practices due to an undisclosed injury and will not be participating in the upcoming Prospect Challenge. All signs point to Pickering being loaned back to his junior team and having his contract slide a season, with a full-time pro start beginning in 2024-25.

After being out-scored 168-172 at 5v5 last year, the first time it’s happened in Pittsburgh since 2005-06, the Pens will be looking to the revamped defense to help reverse that trend and get back to the playoffs. The star ability of Karlsson is being counted on to freshen up the offense, but the group as a whole will have to provide enough steady play and help keep the puck out of the defensive end enough to help cut down on goals against and get the arrow pointed up again for the Pens.

Based on the skill and depth on the roster now, it should be a step forward for the group. Just how far forward might determine the ultimate level of success that the team has in 2023-24.