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The Penguins Are…Different…But Not Much Better

by Dr. Steve Mancini

Photo courtesy of Pensburgh.

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing and fall sports are kicking off. With that, hockey players will be starting mini camps shortly. The Penguin players will begin showing up and one of their first orders of business is to get to know the many new faces in the building.

The team had a very interesting offseason. It is clear with the departures of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke, Penguin ownership understood, especially after missing the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, change was needed.

Enter Kyle Dubas.

It’s clear Dubas wasn’t shy about making changes and he knew small changes weren’t going to cut it. So, in the offseason, Dubas made a monster trade, acquiring all-world Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Erik Karlsson. Acquired from a depleted San Jose Sharks team in rebuild mode, Karlsson brings a fresh face and much-needed offensive to the blue line.

But wait, what about Kris Letang?

Letang is 36 years old and has had some health issues, not just over the past few years, but over the entirety of his time in the league. In fact, he’s completed only one 82-game season over his career and has missed at least 10 games in 5 of his last 7 seasons. And let’s be honest, 2022 wasn’t his best defensive performance (-13 in the plus/minus column).

Karlsson will help, though. He will eat up first line minutes, allowing both players to ease back on the throttle, taking some of the pressure off Letang and bringing a much-needed change to their stale and inconsistent power play. And perhaps limiting both players' ice time will prevent future injuries.

Karlsson isn’t much younger than Letang (entering the campaign at 33), and he too has been bitten by the injury bug, having only one complete season in his last 7 years. Karlsson put up 100 points in 2022, playing on a team where he was undoubtedly the best player. If Letang and Karlsson stay healthy, the tandem should give the Penguins an unmatched 1-2 scoring punch on defense.

The Rest of the Blue Line

The Penguins, as a team, believe they are a fast, run and gun group that should put up 5 or 6 goals a game. Those days are past. P.O. Joseph is unproven, Pettersson, although improved, seems a little too inconsistent, and yet another 33-year-old veteran, Chad Ruhwedel, rounds out a group of questions marks for the 4th, 5th and 6th defensemen. Pens fans will need to hope the addition of former Ranger Ryan Graves will give them some consistent defensive depth in the top three.

The Forwards

Well, where do we begin?

Time to face facts. The Pens' longtime strength—depth at center—has now become their weakness. The two-headed monster is gone.

Team Captain and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby has aged well, adjusting his play accordingly, and can still put up nearly 100 points per season. But he’s 36 years old and is the team’s best option at first line center. At some point, his production will recede. Father Time never misses. Pens fans need to hope that this year is not that year.

Malkin? Sigh. An oft-overlooked stat on Geno is how many times opposing teams score on the Penguins because the now 37-year-old Malkin has taken a dumb penalty. That won’t show up anywhere on Malkin’s stat sheet, nor will his turnovers on the blue line on a powerplay. He’s not the 27-year-old Malkin who could recover. He’s slower and frankly hasn’t been strong in recent years' 5 on 5. And let’s not forget, he hasn’t been that healthy over the last 5 seasons either.

Third line center Jeff Carter had a down season in 2022. Age impacted his play and if Crosby or Malkin were to miss appreciable time, Carter could be a Band-Aid for a few games, but not for an extended period. He brings a veteran presence to the locker room but remember, most guys on this team are older veterans. How much does that truly mean?

While Dubas remade the bottom two lines, many of the new faces bring speed but likely will not add much to the scoring sheet. Yes, the Pens still have Rust, Guentzel and Rakell who can provide points, but the team still lacks true scoring talent in their bottom six. Perhaps this new group of grinders will surprise and one or more will have a breakout season.


So, where does this leave the Pens for the 2023-24 season?

They will again be fighting tooth and nail for a wildcard, competing for a 7th or 8th spot, sneaking into the playoffs, at best.

Why so dour a prediction? It’s easy. Look at the Eastern Conference as a whole. Tampa Bay, Toronto, New York Rangers, Carolina, and New Jersey on paper should round out the conference’s top five teams. Many improved their rosters and others are younger, emerging teams. All were better than the Penguins' last season and should make the playoffs again. Boston, coming off their historic season (and historic collapse), should also claim a spot.

That leaves the Penguins, New York Islanders, and Florida Panthers most likely fighting it out for the final two spots again. Sound familiar?

But don’t sleep on Buffalo and Ottawa. Both teams are on the upswing and frankly, got a little better this off season. If the Pens sneak into the playoffs in the 7th or 8th spot, be grateful. If they win a first round series, give alms to the poor. Anything beyond that might require divine intervention (like the Florida Panthers did last year, capturing lightning in a bottle).

It is going to be a long time before the Penguins are young and competitive again so fans, be patient. The best thing that happened this offseason is that management recognized the need to change. The biggest problem is, many of those changes added quality players, but players with miles on the odometer. The Pens overall lack depth in the minors and have a dearth of young talent everywhere in the system. Their bottom two lines will be faster but still lack any real scoring talent.

So, perhaps the team finds the fountain of youth, fights off the injury bug and gives fans one last run at the Stanley Cup before the championship window slams shut. But to be fair, it is unlikely. See you at the rink, and let’s find out.

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