Pittsburgh Penguins
Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Penguins Need To Show That This Era Is Not Over Yet

The past half-decade has been a roller-coaster for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Black and Gold have started to somewhat fade out of memory. They managed to finish first in the incredibly difficult East division in 2021, but it meant little in the long run. They were bounced out of the first round for the second time in three years by the New York Islanders. While they dominated play for considerable stretches, it was the excellent goaltending of Ilya Sorokin and the atrocious goaltending of Tristan Jarry that cost them dearly. Sidney Crosby remains excellent at 34 years, but great players in every sport will eventually slow down due to father time.

Even more concerning for the Penguins is their injury situation. Both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be sidelined for the start of the regular season. Where a lack of depth could be easily swept aside, this will now be a serious issue for the Penguins. Outside of Jake Guentzel, eyebrows will be raised as to who can step up in the dynamic duos’ absence. Things could get ugly quickly if the Penguins have a bad start to the season.

Forwards

When healthy, the Penguins still have a very good forward. Just about anyone can produce on the wing of Crosby and Malkin, and this year is no exception. Jason Zucker is still a productive player, and Jeff Carter was a pleasant surprise in the First Round against the Islanders. However, it is the bottom six that begins to tread water. The additions of Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen are OK, and the fourth line is shaky at best. The Islanders’ ability to roll four lines was something that got in the Penguins’ way at times. Zach Aston-Reese should also start to step it up in my opinion. I have a feeling in my gut that his days could be numbered in Pittsburgh if it’s more of the same. Regardless, a fully healthy lineup should resemble the following:

Guentzel – Crosby – Rust

Zucker – Malkin – Kapanen

McGinn – Carter – Heinen

Aston Resse – Blueger – Rodrigues

It’s hard to think how their season will start down the middle with Crosby and Malkin on the mend. While the team desperately needs both of them, they also need them healthy. Rushing them back from injury at their advanced age could spell major problems for this season. Mike Sullivan will have to do the best he can with what he has, which is not very much at all. The losses of Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev were also pretty tough pills to swallow. They both added a little bit of everything in the middle six for the Pens. With a limited prospect pool and not much draft capital, it is also hard to anticipate whether the Pittsburgh Penguins can make a trade for someone to fill the void for at least the short term.

Defense Pairs

If there are any positives here, it’s that there shouldn’t be injury concerns for the defense like there are for the forwards. Kris Letang proved why he is still an excellent defenseman, picking up 45 points in 55 games during the shortened season. Brian Dumoulin also remains a quality partner for the veteran on the top pair. They made no major additions to the blue line, but that shouldn’t be too concerning. A full season ahead will allow this unit to gel together and improve. John Marino and Marcus Petterson can fill in the bottom 2 pairs nicely, and Chad Ruhwedel is not a bad 7th defenseman. The projected defense corps is something the likes of:

Dumoulin – Letang

Matheson – Marino

Pettersson – Friedman

Outside of Letang, there is not too much that “wows” you. But they don’t have to. As long as they are defensively sound and get the puck to their forwards, it should be enough. #58 is still a superb powerplay quarterback, and both Pettersson and Marino can contribute the same duties. Barring injuries, the Penguins’ defense should not be a glaring weakness, but hopefully a consistent strength.

Goaltending

It is clear that the Penguins are banking on a return to form for their goalies. Tristan Jarry was awful against, making just about any type of mistake you could imagine. Not protecting the glove side, turning the puck over, and just looking unconfident. Had it not been for Jarry, the Penguins could have possibly won the series. Casey DeSmith is not a bad backup, but there were goalies to be had over the offseason. Even franchise legend Marc-Andre Fleury was on the trade block before getting sent to Chicago. If Mike Sullivan and company expect to go anywhere this season, their goalies MUST be better.

Prediction: Still A Playoff Team

I still have faith in these Penguins. However, this is a make it or break it year. With both Malkin and Letang free agents in 2022, they must have a step up to keep their best players around. Should they be fully healthy, that is a possibility. Sidney Crosby has shown time and time again that he is a player who simply gets it done. This team is still capable of making the playoffs in the smoking-hot Metropolitan Division. However, there is still a possibility it all goes wrong. Should the Pittsburgh Penguins start slow and fall out of a playoff battle, it could cost Sullivan his job. As well, the front office might even hear offers on Letang or Malkin should a rebuild be their final decision. They had a rather quiet offseason after such a disappointing end to their 2021 campaign, but seem set to run it back once again with this core.

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