It is not exactly a secret that the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be one of the oldest teams in the league and one of the oldest teams the NHL has seen in the salary cap era. As we examined a little more than a month ago, teams that have an average age of 30-or-older have not always fared exceptionally well, especially in recent years.
But that doesn’t mean there can not be exceptions, especially when an older team still has a lot of high level talent. Which the Penguins most certainly do.
There is one team from semi-recent NHL history that does compare somewhat favorably to this current Penguins roster in terms of average age and still found a lot of success, and that is the Detroit Red Wings between 2005 and 2009. That team consistently had an average age of 31 or older each year, and during that stretch won a Presidents’ Trophy, two Western Conference titles, and a Stanley Cup.
Their average ages, by year, during those seasons: 32.1, 32.3, 32.1, and 31.2.
That is actually a little older than what this Penguins team is looking at as it prepares to go into the season with average age closer to 30. What is interesting about the Penguins roster right now is that the average age actually went DOWN after acquiring Erik Karlsson due to the players they gave up. They are still on track to not only be one of the oldest teams in the league, but also be more dependent on older players than just about anybody else.
Let’s take a look at this past year’s roster and the average age of their top-10 point producers.
Only two of then (Jake Guentzel at 28 and Rickard Rakell at 29) were under the age of 30, while the top-two scorers (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) were 35 and 36.
Going into this season Guentzel is going to be 29 and Rakell, obviously, will be 30. That is a lot of dependency on players on the other side of 30.
I went back and looked at those Red Wings teams and noticed something that stood out, and was also maybe a little concerning as it relates to the Penguins. For as old as the average age of those Red Wings teams was, a lot of it was due to complementary players or players further down the roster. Especially as they got into the 2007-08 and 2008-09 teams.
The focal points of those teams offensively was still players like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk who were still in the mid-late 20s and playing at their peak levels. They were the top offensive scorers on those teams, while they also had younger players like Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary, Valterri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and Niklas Kronwall among their top-10 scorers. All of those players were not only under the age of 30, they were in some cases significantly under the age of 30.
Just projecting the Penguins’ top-10 scorers this season, you are probably looking at something like this:
Reilly Smith: 32
Kris Letang: 36
Bryan Rust: 31
Lars Eller: 34
Noel Acciari: 31
That’s a pretty old lineup. It is not only a top-heavy lineup in terms of actual offensive production, any youth that is expected to appear on the roster will be at the bottom of the lineup on the lower defensive pairings and lower forward lines. And even then when it comes to younger players it’s going to be the likes of Drew O’Connor, Rem Pitlick and Alex Nylander, all of whom are still over the age of 25.
The youngest players on the NHL roster are defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph (24) and Ty Smith (23). There just is not much youth, fresh energy or young faces to offer any sort of relief anywhere on the lineup. Even the old Red Wings teams had a healthy dose of prime-age (or younger) players to help carry the bulk of the offense and play the biggest roles.
The fact the Penguins do not have that is somewhat of a concern.
As long as players like Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Karlsson are healthy they are going to still produce. The great ones do not dramatically stop scoring at a certain age and they are able to maintain a significant portion of that production even deep into their 30s. But with age comes lingering injuries (or just any injury) and that is where problems can start to arise. The Penguins were extremely fortunate a year ago that Crosby and Malkin were both able to play a full 82-game slate of games. That is not a guarantee to happen again, especially since it has never happened at any point over the previous decade-and-a-half where both of them played a full slate of games in the same season. At least one of them, maybe both of them, is likely to miss games.
For as good as they should still be when on the ice, you also have to take into account that second-tier players (Rust, Rakell, Smith, Eller, Acciari) will be more likely to have their age show up in their production. Since they are starting from a lower baseline point any decline from them is going to be far more noticeable and far more damaging to the offense.
This isn’t meant to be overly negative or critical.
Overall, I really like what the Penguins did this offseason, the moves they made, and I can see the thought process behind all of them. I also think it has a very real chance to work and produce a highly competitive team, especially if they get decent goaltending. There is a lot to like about this roster. But the age concern is very valid, and there are not many parallels in the modern era for teams constructed like them to continue winning. Even when those parallels do exist those teams (like the Red Wings) still had prime age players to help carry them.
I also do not think the Penguins really had any choice. They committed to this path (as they should have) and have to stay on it at this point. Crosby, Malkin and Letang are still high level players, and you owe it to them to try and win. They are still trying to win.
If the Penguins are going to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup they are going to have to buck some pretty clear and obvious recent trends. If any group of players is capable of doing that, this is the group, They just have to actually do it.