by Justin Ives & Joe 412
Photo courtesy of NHL.com.
Since the 2006 NHL season, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin have all shared Pittsburgh ice together, and in that time have accumulated over 1000 games each for the Penguins. They have brought the city three Stanley Cups and have appeared in four finals as a unit. Pretty impressive if not dynastic accomplishments, worthy of future Hall of Fame inductions when their careers come to an end.
However, that same trio of superstars have failed to win a playoff series since 2018 and missed the NHL playoffs last season for the first time in seventeen years. So, the big question facing the Penguins is simple—should they try and reload and make one last push, or start building for the future? Do they have one more run in the proverbial tank?
Enter Kyle Dubas, the Pens' newly minted “GM” and you won’t have to look hard to know what he thinks. His answer—an emphatic “yes.”
Here’s the proof: Crosby and Malkin both played in all 82 games last season and scored over a point per game for the year. Letang played in 64 games and accumulated 41 points, which was the 7th most on the team and the highest out of all the defensemen on the roster. The issues the team is experiencing cannot be laid at the feet of the “Big 3.” So, yea… the proof is in the statistical pudding. If they were fading, then rebuild. But last year the core leadership of the team proved they could still compete at the highest levels of the game.
And when Dubas took the reins last month, he had $20 million in cap space to make moves. In the period of one week he spent those reserves, targeting signings that are meant to “win now.”
First, he wanted to improve the depth of the 3rd and 4th line, a problem that has haunted the Pens for the last two seasons. By signing Matt Nieto, Noel Acciari and Lars Eller, Dubas did just that.
Nieto and Acciari add speed and grit while Eller still remains one of the league’s best defensive centers, even as he edges closer to the end of his career. All were affordable and all should add pop and energy to their bottom six.
Second, Dubas fixed the goaltender problem. Like it or hate it, the long term signing of Tristan Jarry made sense, as some of the higher priced targets available by trade would have meant mortgaging the team’s future. And with a shallow free agent pool, Jarry was the best of the remaining bunch. The five year, $5+ million AAV his contract brought was affordable for a two-time all-star goalie and makes sense if Jarry can stay healthy. And that’s a big “if.”
But Dubas didn’t stop there. He dipped back into the free agent marketplace and signed Alex Nedeljkovic, a reserve goaltender that is sure to push longtime backup Casey DeSmith for the 2nd seat on the bench. And, if (and when) Jarry is injured, the Pens now have a credible goaltender-by-committee option to get them through until Jarry returns.
Lastly, Dubas invested in a top-two defenseman, Ryan Graves, to replace a fading Brian Dumoulin and bought a lottery ticket on offensive-minded power play specialist, Will Butcher, adding depth to a depleted blue line.
Graves is a big, puck moving defenseman that can skate alongside Letang and will be counted on to play strong defense behind the future hall of famer. Butcher may start the season in the minors, but is too talented not to find his way into the lineup at some point, allowing the Pens to cash in on his offensive skills.
However, Dubas’s most telling move may have come in something he didn’t do—which was to trade star winger, Jake Guentzel. Guentzel’s departure would be unpopular with the fans, but it would undoubtedly net the team multiple prospects and maybe even a few young NHL ready players in return. Guentzel is thought to be due a significant raise at year’s end and is entering the last year of his deal, likely finding himself swimming in the expensive waters of unrestricted free agency. NHL teams ready to compete for the cup would salivate at the chance to trade for a rental in Guentzel. But it appears Dubas won’t send Crosby’s most important linemate away for prospects—for now.
Lastly, there are even rumblings that Dubas is trying to secure the services of superstar Norris trophy winner, Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks. The cost of such a splash acquisition will undoubtedly be 1st round draft pick(s) and/or some of the Pens' young prospects worthy of consideration, like P.O. Joseph, Owen Pickering or Brayden Yager.
An expensive move to say the least, and a team that has chosen “option B” to rebuild doesn't act like this. The trade hasn’t happened and may never, as it will take some capology legerdemain to accomplish it. But the fact Dubas was—and reportedly still is—involved with San Jose leads Draft 412 to believe he’s buying and not selling.
It’s quite clear what the Pens intend to do. Dubas has done a great job in the few short weeks he’s been here, locking up targeted free agents, re-signing Jarry and adding depth to the lower lines and farm system. And he may not be done yet. Get ready for a fun ride with this core group, as Pens brass clearly believes there’s enough fuel left for one more run.