Sportsnet had an interesting premise for naming a player on every Metropolitan Division team that needs to deliver this season. Here’s the entry for the Penguins:
Whether or not you believe the Penguins still have a Stanley Cup window, it’s clear the start of the Kyle Dubas era will focus on trying to set up for a couple more runs. Sidney Crosby has two years left on his contract, Evgeni Malkin three, and as those two age into their late-30s, some sort of end looms. On the back end, Kris Letang has five years remaining. But while Dubas did make some other subtle changes to the Pens, he also made the biggest splash of the off-season by trading for Erik Karlsson — who has four years left and will count for $10 million against their cap.
How will Karlsson follow up his Norris-winning, 101-point season with the San Jose Sharks? Last year was an historic one for the offence-minded defenceman, and it followed several seasons where he struggled to stay healthy and produce as he had in Ottawa. Karlsson is 33 now and still chasing his first Stanley Cup, while this era of Pittsburgh hockey tries to squeeze out one more. Karlsson didn’t explode in San Jose until Brent Burns was moved out, so it will be interesting to see how it works alongside Letang in Pittsburgh. The Pens gave up a bit more of the future (2024 first-rounder) in the Karlsson deal, buying in even more to a roster that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2018. Karlsson doesn’t need to win Norris Trophies necessarily, but he does have to be special.
As far as intrigue goes, there’s no doubt Karlsson is A1 for the Pens there. He’s new, he was on a terrible team last year while giving up a TON of chances/expected goals against (and piling up even more chances/expected goals for). He scored 100 points in a season for the first time by an NHL defender since Brian Leetch. How is that going to travel to Pittsburgh? It’s fascinating and feeding a ton of interest in the Pens.
But does Karlsson need to deliver the most? I don’t think I’d agree there.
Tristan Jarry with his new five-year contract stands out. Goalies are always lightning rods, but this year there’s a reason Jarry is in the storm. His injury-riddled year last year was disappointing. Jarry’s .893 save% in calendar 2023 ranked 39th for goalies in that stretch (min. 10 games). If he doesn’t deliver, the Pens are toast. Evergreen commentary on goaltending, given the importance of the position.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need to deliver. Not that they’re coming off bad years, but their problem is almost the opposite of Jarry. The beleaguered goalie has nowhere but up to go from last season. Crosby and Malkin, well, it’s going to be a challenge. In 2022-23, the Pens’ top centers combined for 176 points (60 goals, 116 assists). They didn’t miss a single game between them — for the first time ever that both suited up in each and every game.
One year older, that’s a tall task to replicate, but the team is going to need something close to it. Then again, those two have a mountain of evidence to suggest they can be counted on to deliver.
Staying on the high points, Rickard Rakell’s 60 points last season were the second most of all the years in his NHL career so far. It’s tough to stay as productive as ever when passing the age of 30, as Rakell is now. But he was so good last year (also missing zero games) and built such deserved reputation for offensive excellence that it will be difficult to follow that up in the same manner.
Jake Guentzel needs to come back from a major injury and hit the ground running to deliver for the Pens. Bryan Rust needs to bounce back from a disappointing season. Reilly Smith has to integrate to a new team. Kris Letang has to morph into a new situation on the same team, now sharing the ice with another alpha defender. And you can go on and on, practically everyone on the NHL roster has to step up and deliver and perform their role or function to ensure team success.