2022 NHL Offseason Guide: The Pittsburgh Penguins
If there’s been one constant across the last fifteen years in the NHL, it’s this: “don’t bet against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.” The trio, drafted within two years of each other, has led the Penguins to incredible heights, reaching the NHL’s summit three times since 2009. Long, but not that long before the Lightning reached the precipice of three straight championships, the Penguins became the first team to win consecutive Cups in the cap era, going back to 2016 and 2017, with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang largely leading the way (yes, the latter was injured for the entire 2017 playoffs, but was still a key piece before and after that injury).
However, for the first time since Crosby faced significant head injuries in the early 2010s, that core’s future is in jeopardy. Malkin and Letang’s contracts expired when Artemi Panarin’s Game 7 OT winner prevented the Penguins from winning a playoff series for the fourth consecutive year, the longest drought for this core. Both could become UFAs for the first time in their careers. GM Ron Hextall has started negotiations with both players. But there’s at least a chance one or both isn’t in black and gold in October.
Uncertainty looms much larger over the Penguins organization than just the status of two of its stars. The Penguins have just one series win since their last championship, which is now a half-decade old. That’s hardly a noteworthy drought compared to the rest of the league. But it may take a while for the Penguins to get back to the level of seriously contending for another. Again, you doubt Crosby and company, whoever “company” is, at your own risk. Whether it’s Malkin and Letang or a new supporting cast, this offseason figures to be a pivotal one in the Steel City.
Even with Malkin and Letang currently in limbo, the Penguins still have a solid framework. Sidney Crosby is the obvious main headliner. While Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, and others have shot into the spotlight in recent years, Crosby remains a top-ten player when healthy. That is an important caveat; after a six-year stretch of playing at least 75 games every season, Crosby has missed 52 games over the last three seasons. And that doesn’t include the playoff game he missed as a result of a high, controversial hit by Jacob Trouba. It’s something worth monitoring into his mid-30s, but Crosby is obviously still a tremendous talent who has nothing left to prove.
Even with their question marks, Crosby still has a decent bit of help. Jake Guentzel has emerged as just another Chris Kunitz or Conor Sheary — solid players whose numbers significantly benefited from playing with Crosby — but a legit star in his own right. Playing with Crosby definitely helps; Guentzel had a 55.37% expected goals share in 910 minutes with Crosby and a 47.43% mark in 247 minutes without him. But a consistent point-per-game scorer is valuable no matter who he’s playing with, and Guentzel’s been at least roughly that since his NHL debut in 2016. And Pittsburgh already extended one critical would-be UFA, inking Bryan Rust to a 6-year, $30.75 million contract. Rust may not be a household name, but he scored a career-high 58 points in just 60 games last year. He also scored at a similar clip (56 points in 55 games) in 2019-20.
At the moment, Pittsburgh’s forward depth stalls out shortly thereafter. Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger give the Penguins a strong center depth chart. Although both (especially Carter) would be miscast without Malkin or another top-six caliber center in the mix. It will be interesting to see how the Penguins handle Kasperi Kapanen, an RFA who disappointed in this season after a promising first year in Pittsburgh. It’s a similar story for Jason Zucker. The longtime Wild winger looked great in black and gold after arriving at the 2020 trade deadline. But his first two full seasons in Pittsburgh have been marred by injuries and lackluster production. Getting more out of those two is vital, especially with Brock McGinn’s $2.75 million cap hit a bit pricey for a fourth-liner.
Without Letang (at least for now), Pittsburgh’s defense is the opposite of its forward core. There’s no other stars, but the depth is solid. Mike Matheson’s emergence as a legitimately strong offensive defenseman helps; he finished 19th in the NHL in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes among defensemen (min. 300 5-on-5 minutes played). Brian Dumoulin has been a rock steady complement to Letang over the years and should still be solid without him. John Marino and Marcus Pettersson round out a respectable top four, one where each defender makes between four-five million dollars a year.
Youngster Pierre-Oliver Joseph, acquired for Phil Kessel in 2019, could become a lineup regular this year as well. It’s not a bad unit as is, but the lack of a true No. 1 blue-liner is certainly noteworthy. Whether or not re-signing Letang is the right choice to fill that void remains to be seen. But it’s still a void that needs to be filled. Pittsburgh only has one goaltender with NHL experience under contract. That’s their starter, Tristan Jarry, who seems to be on sturdier footing than he was a year ago. Jarry was mediocre in the 2020-21 regular season and brutal in those playoffs after emerging as an all-star the year prior. He bounced back nicely last year but only played in one playoff game due to injury.
Obviously, losing Malkin and Letang would leave holes down the middle and on right defense. Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck could potentially fill the former hole. Or the Penguins could really splurge and chase Nazem Kadri, who’s coming off a career year and Cup win at age 32. John Klingberg is basically the only viable Letang replacement. Josh Manson is solid as well, but not nearly the type of puck-mover than Letang or Klingberg are. In a perfect world, Pittsburgh would probably like to add a winger as well, with Zucker and Kapanen difficult to rely on after frustrating seasons. With Jarry’s bouncing back, bet on the Penguins shopping at the lower end of the goalie market. They’ll likely focus on complementing Jarry rather than overshadowing him, at least for this summer.
Cap flexibility like this isn’t something the Penguins have had in awhile. Per CapFriendly, Pittsburgh has $23 million in cap space, although signing both Malkin and Letang would erase most of that. Kapanen and Danton Heinen, who flirted with 20 goals in 2021-22, are the team’s major RFAs. Integrating young players like P.O. Joseph, 2019 1st rounder Samuel Poulin, and Filip Hållander (who made his NHL debut last year) could help the Penguins save more money around the margins. Given how much it will take to retain or replace their stars, young, cheap help would be much appreciated. Jack Johnson’s buyout carries a $1,916,667 penalty in 2021-22, which drops by exactly $1 million for the next three years.
The Penguins are missing a couple of fairly high picks this year and next. But they aren’t missing any first rounders. Pittsburgh traded away its second rounder this year to acquire Rickard Rakell (another pending UFA forward). Its third round picks this year and next year are Kings property as a result of the Jeff Carter trade at the 2021 deadline. The Penguins have the 21st pick in this year’s draft. That would be the highest they’ve drafted since taking Derrick Pouliot at No. 8 in 2012. Pittsburgh hasn’t even made a first round pick since taking Poulin 21st in 2019. Given the weak state of their system, there’s no real positional need for Pittsburgh to consider here; best player available is their best option.
What the Penguins do this summer will reflect how far they think they are from a championship. Remember, Pittsburgh thoroughly dominated the Rangers at 5-on-5 in Round 1. If Crosby and Jarry are healthy, there’s a solid chance the Penguins advance. Of course, what happens after that is impossible to predict. Sure, you could make excuses for Pittsburgh’s shortcomings in years past. But that’s true for a lot of teams that fall short.
If the Penguins bring back Malkin and Letang, it’s not just a showing of loyalty. It’s a fervent belief that Pittsburgh’s core hasn’t gone stale. A belief that the status quo and culture built under Mike Sullivan is still championship caliber. There’s always darkness before the dawn, and teams like the Lightning and Blues have proved the value of patience. Of course, others like the Sharks and Red Wings proved too slow adapt. Great stars of their pasts like Brent Burns or Henrik Zetterberg went or are going down with the ship. Pittsburgh certainly doesn’t want to meet the same fate.
Making big changes usually isn’t as easy as letting Malkin and Letang walk. Of course, that’s just talking in terms of practical ease. The emotion behind losing not just two future Hall of Famers, but franchise icons would be incredibly potent.
But emotional decisions are rarely the best ones. Whatever decision Ron Hextall makes on the fates of Malkin, Letang, and others can’t be that. The Penguins undoubtedly want to make things work and allow Malkin, Letang, and Crosby to ride off into the sunset as winners whenever that time comes. But it’s the winning part that is prioritized first and foremost, not the send-off. Whether or not means the latter is the next thing to happen to the Penguins remains to be seen.
All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 and via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated