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Three “What If’s” for Pens Fans to Consider

by J.T. Toth

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a busy off-season and as training camp opens on September 22nd, the team, though better, still has three burning questions that will be on the minds of all fans:

1) Can Tristan Jarry Stay Healthy?

The goalie situation in Pittsburgh was a hot topic going into the off-season, as the Penguins needed to determine whether or not they’d trade for a starting goaltender, hit the free agent market in search of one or resign two-time all star—but oft-injured—Tristan Jarry?

Fans and pundits alike cast wide nets, fishing for names like Pittsburgh’s own John Gibson, the longtime Anaheim netminder, as the Ducks are admittedly in the midst of a rebuild. Or perhaps a deal might have been reached with the Winnipeg Jets who were looking to move Connor Hellebuyck for the right price.

The goalie market, including some “name” free agents, turned out to be a bit shallower than fans had hoped, and newly-minted GM Kyle Dubas rolled the dice on Jarry, re-signing him to a 5 year contract worth over 26 million dollars.

Jarry, when healthy, has shown that he can be among the league’s best, but his injury issues the last few seasons have stymied the Penguins’ playoff runs. Rumors abound about a chronic hip problem, but the team has since refuted this claim. Certainly, the Penguins did their due diligence on Jarry before giving him a 5 year deal, but the changes in net didn’t stop there. The team needed depth, wanting to sign someone that could handle extended ice time in the event Jarry failed to stay healthy.

Enter former Detroit Red Wings backup netminder Alex Nedeljkovic. Nedeljkovic takes over for the incumbent Casey DeSmith, who was moved to Montreal in the Erik Karlsson trade later in the summer. Nedeljkovic has had moments when he’s played well over an extended period and has more upside then DeSmith. With the window for success getting smaller each season, the Penguins need to find the right balance to win games and to keep Jarry fresh and healthy come playoff time. Dubas hopes that the answer is Alex Nedeljkovic.

2) Does Ty Smith or Pierre-Olivier Joseph Step Up?

With Ryan Graves, Erik Karlsson, Marcus Pettersson, Kris Letang and Chad Ruhwedel projected as the first five defensemen, a spot is still open for a left-handed defenseman on the 3rd pairing. Ty Smith and Pierre-Olivier Joseph are two young defensemen who will battle for this spot throughout the preseason and perhaps into the early part of the regular season.

Joseph, obtained from Arizona in 2019 as part of the Phil Kessel deal, played in a career high 75 games last season and had an up and down year. The former first round pick skates well and moves the puck with offense in mind like the team likes, but some question his overall physical strength and his ability to hold his own in the defensive end. In the new era of NHL, smaller defensemen are en vogue, but P.O. Joseph has struggled clearing opponents from in front of the net and winning puck battles along the boards.

Ty Smith was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in 2022 for John Marino and a 3rd round pick. Smith is another puck moving defenseman who can generate offense and can play substantial minutes each night. In the 2020-2021 season, Smith played 48 games for the Devils and averaged over 20 minutes of ice time. The knock on Smith has been his consistency. Can he hold the 6th spot for an entire season without being a defensive liability.

3) Malkin and Crosby – then who?

Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby both played 82 games in 2022-23 and it was the first time that both players played in every game in the same season.

Think about that.

Malkin (37) and Crosby (36) are not getting any younger and to believe they can go back to back seasons without suffering an injury is perhaps wishful thinking. Who will the Pens turn to if one misses time for an injury?

Aging center Jeff Carter has been on a steady decline, evident in last season’s swoon. Free agent signing Lars Eller may be able to take hold of one of the top two lines for a period, but will not keep pace in the scoring column often enough to be a first or second line center over the long haul. He put up only 23 points in 84 games last season and has never reached 40 points in his career. Eller is good at what he does, but a top six center role isn’t it.

The Penguins have solid depth on the bottom six with the signings of Noel Acciari, Rem Pitlick, Vinnie Hinostroza and others, but they do not have any players they can plug and play in the top six if an injury should occur. If Crosby and/or Malkin fall to long term injury, it will undoubtedly be a very long season for a team with a diminishing window for success.

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