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Random thoughts as the Penguins begin 2024: Marcus Pettersson, Jake Guentzel and more

Checking in with some random thoughts on several Pittsburgh Penguins players.

Arizona Coyotes v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to begin the 2024 portion of the 2023-24 NHL season on Tuesday night, and I have some thoughts.

1. Marcus Pettersson has been outstanding

I have not always been a huge fan of Pettersson’s game (nor have I been really down on him) but he has been one of the most consistent, steadiest and most reliable players on the team this season. Especially defensively. He is the common denominator in everything good that happens on the defense, and pretty much every partner he plays alongside plays their best hockey.

Erik Karlsson’s best play during 5-on-5 play? Next to Pettersson.

Letang’s best 5-on-5 play? Next to Pettersson.

He is never going to be a huge offensive force, and he is not going to be a mover of worlds around the net, but he has just been consistently solid from the start of the season. Is it unfair to say that he has sort of become what peak-era Brian Dumoulin used to be? Just a steady, reliable hand that can complement an elite skater and offensive force on the blue line. Speaking of....

2. Ryan Graves has been the opposite

My ultimate hope with the Graves signing was that he could be that player. He had demonstrated a track record of producing strong results alongside other elite players in Colorado and New Jersey, and while I was not a huge fan of the contract I did think he at least had a chance to be a solid player and fine addition to the top-four on defense.

It has not happened.

Not only has it not happened, he has been the common denominator in everything that has gone wrong on defense.

Kris Letang’s least-productive play? Next to Graves.

Erik Karlsson’s least-productive play? Next to Graves.

In fact, Karlsson’s drop in play seemed to happen almost as soon as he was paired next to Graves.

On one hand, it is only half a season and it is his first year here. I am not ready to entirely throw everything with him out the window and say he has no chance to succeed here. I am saying the early returns are not promising.

3. The Jake Guentzel decision is going to be massive

I don’t know what general manager Kyle Dubas is going to do here, but this is going to be one of the most significant decisions of his early general manager tenure.

Guentzel is having a monster year. He is leading the team in scoring, he has been outstanding across the board, and he has an outside shot at another 40-goal season.

He is also in the final year of his contract and playing his way to a huge contract.

Can they get him signed? Should they get him signed? What if they want to get him signed and do not have him signed by the time the trade deadline rolls around? About two or three weeks ago it looked like there was a real possibility that the Penguins would be far enough outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture that a trade seemed like a legit possibility. If you are not going to make the playoffs you absolutely can not risk losing him for nothing. Especially when he is probably the best and most tradeable asset that you have in the organization.

The recent surge in play by the Penguins however has them right back in the thick of the playoff race, with a real chance to make an even bigger move this week against the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins.

I simply can not imagine the Penguins doing anything to throw in the towel on a season as long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang and Karlsson are on the roster, especially if they have even a remote chance of making the playoffs. It would be a complete 180 from everything they have showed over the past few years. They have not even had a small desire to do anything different. I can not imagine that is going to change this season. Especially with the way Guentzel is playing.

4. The goaltending continues to impress

The play of Tristan Jarry, Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg (when they needed him) continues to be the biggest surprise in Pittsburgh for me this season. These guys have been tremendous and are a huge reason why the Penguins are near the top of the league in terms of allowing the fewest goals per game. I do not know how long it will or can continue, but they deserve huge props for what they have done so far. I am more optimistic about Jarry than I have been in years.

When he has been healthy he has shown the ability to play at this level. He just has not ever stayed consistently healthy enough to do it. Nedeljkovic is a little more uncertain for me, but as long as he is playing the way he is you have to find ways to keep getting him in the net. He has earned it, it can help keep Jarry fresh and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having — and using — multiple productive goalies.

If they can figure out the rest of their stuff as a team — depth scoring, the power play — this goaltending performance could make them a problem to deal with in the Eastern Conference.

5. I expect a big second half from Rickard Rakell

The Penguins need it, and I think he is going to deliver it. He has already started to show signs of coming through. Entering this week he has points in four of his past five games and 14 total shots on goal over his past six games. He is too talented, too productive and has too much of a track record to be as bad as he was over the first couple of months.

He was one of their best, most consistent and most reliable offensive players a year ago and I have a hard time believing he just simply lost that ability overnight. It would not surprise me if he finishes the season with 15 goals and 40 total points. Those numbers might be underwhelming based on preseason expectations, but they would be a welcome sight given the way his season began.

6. Valtteri Puustinen is still impressing

Another positive and surprising development has been the arrival and emergence of Puustinen. They were desperate for somebody like this to come through the farm system and exceed expectations, and I have honestly loved everything about his game so far.