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What will happen next to the mid-pack Penguins?

The Pens are right in the middle of the league

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Seattle Kraken v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Back on December 11th, with the Penguins in a four-game winless streak and bumbling towards the bottom of the table, general manager Kyle Dubas made headlines when he said he would wait until the All-Star break to see where the team stood to chart the appropriate course forward for the year.

Since that time, the Pens are sixth in the NHL with a .719 points%. Despite that upturn, they’re still right around the middle of the NHL, as a check of some recent power rankings will show.

What comes next is more interesting still. Pittsburgh has only played 42 games this season, currently among the lowest in the league. They will all end up at 82 games at the end, but the Pens won’t be catching up any time soon. The Pens play out west on Saturday (Vegas) and Monday (Arizona) then come back east and have a few days of before a home back-to-back next Friday (Florida) and Saturday (Montreal) before going into the league’s bye week and All-Star break festivities that sees Pittsburgh inactive until Tuesday February 6th.

That adds up to just four games over a three week stretch that started this Tuesday, leaving little time for anything to be all that different until we get to Dubas’ self-reported timing.

That leaves Dubas and the Pens in an interesting spot. They’ve been coming on well over the last month, yet are only right in the thick of things for the playoff chase. And they’re joined by a host of other teams in a similar boat, be it for positive or negative surprises from teams like Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Tampa and New Jersey.

Dubas outright dismissed recent outside speculation about the team engaging in trade talk to send Jake Guentzel away on his recent podcast with Josh Getzoff.

The whole Guentzel contract situation is a fascinating development on its own.

On the surface, you have a 29-year old winger who is on pace for a career-high 89 points this season, which mark his sixth straight year of being a consistent point-per-game performer (379 points in 373 games since the start of 2018-19). Guentzel fits hand-in-glove with his experience, timing, skill and hockey IQ as the the best linemate Sidney Crosby has ever had (no offense to the three-month cameo by Marian Hossa many moons ago) and is no small part of Crosby’s late-career success story.

On the other hand, if the Penguin extend Guentzel’s contract, it would be for most of his 30’s on a team where (besides Guentzel) the other seven leading scorers (Crosby, Malkin, Karlsson, Letang, Rust, Smith, Rakell) all are already north of 30, and several far beyond that. The Penguins are an old team only getting older, and the reality of the times are what they are as far as the upcoming reckoning for a club with a terrible prospect pool and limited upcoming high draft picks.

Navigating the expiring Guentzel contract is the biggest decision for Dubas. If he shifts the team away from committing big money and a long-term deal to Guentzel, it’s doubtlessly a sign that the next era for the Penguins will be starting sooner than later, if it has not already begun. Doing so just months after sending out draft capital to add a premier defenseman in Karlsson would be a whipsaw correction. (Beyond that, one wonders what signs that might send to Crosby, whose contract expires after 2024-25 if the team is gearing down and parting with elite skill, but that is a whole different can of worms to open on a day where such a scenario becomes more than hypothetical).

Even if Dubas decides to re-sign Guentzel, the current team’s position is right on the borderline of making the playoffs this season, and he’s already traded away 2024’s first round pick to acquire Karlsson. Like so many others, the Pens are bumping the upper limit of the salary cap with every move — and only currently have the space for one extra defenseman and no spare healthy forwards on the NHL roster right now.

While Crosby is putting up a special season, the bottom-six forward revamp has been a success and the goaltending has worked out as well or better than reasonably imagined, the Penguins overall are just kind of there so far. They’re a veteran team that can play well (as evidenced over the last month) but their power play has been terrible and at times they look their age as the NHL’s oldest team.

That puts Dubas in a very interesting spot halfway through his first season in Pittsburgh. The Penguins don’t look like a very threatening team, yet they’re not without hope or the ability to string together some quality games. No one ever aspires or likes to ride in the middle lanes, but that is exactly where the Pens find themselves deep into the season. Not elite, but not bad, and not much is likely to drastically change in the coming days or weeks to alter the picture that has been developing over the last few months.

By the NHL’s trade deadline on March 8th, Dubas will have to make decisions on planning the short and maybe even longer-term direction for the Pens. Perhaps he can work some magic and buoy the club with a right piece or two and hope for a playoff appearance and for the annual playoff chaos to shake out in Pittsburgh’s favor. But perhaps his thoughts and vision for the future will be different.

Not too much will happen on the ice in the next few weeks as time ticks away towards the deadline but as the All-Star break approaches it will be fascinating to watch how the Penguins handle their current positioning and what decisions they opt to make as a result.