Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2022-23 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2022-2023 Pittsburgh Penguins.
2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins
This season was yet another regular season success for the Penguins. They finished the season 46-25-11 and 3rd in the Atlantic Division. It was enough to clinch their 16th consecutive playoff berth. Their playoff hopes were short-lived, though, with yet another first-round exit to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It cemented yet another year of “middle of the road” success and left all Penguins fans hungry for more. They weren’t the best, and they certainly weren’t the worst.
However, things in Pittsburgh just seemed so stale at the end of their season. They were winning, but they just weren’t getting that far. The biggest stories for the Penguins in the 2021-22 season were the goaltending comeback and their core coming together again for what most thought would be their last run together.
After the dominance of Matt Murray following their second cup win in a row, goaltending was always the question mark on the Penguins roster. Tristan Jarry never really felt like the final answer but seemed like the best answer at the time. Jarry struggled in the 2020-2021 season but was brought back in the hopes of a bounce back. Jarry bounced back last season by becoming one of the better goalies in the league. Among NHL goalies, Jarry ranked eighth in wins and sixth-best in save percentage. This is more impressive considering he ranked sixth in most minutes played amongst goalies. Everything was looking up between the pipes for the Penguins up until Jarry sustained a foot injury in April of 2022.
With Jarry out right before the playoffs, the Penguins had to turn to their backup goalie Casey DeSmith. DeSmith’s playoff run didn’t last long when he was injured in Game 1 of the playoffs. The Penguins had no choice but to turn to their third-string goaltender, Louis Domingue. Domingue held in there throughout most of the first round up until Games 5 and 6. The Penguins turned to Jarry the second he was cleared to play but it was all for not. Jarry allowed 4 goals on 30 shots against the Rangers resulting in the Penguins’ first-round exit. There is no doubt that injuries and inconsistency in net during a key point in the season didn’t help the Penguin’s chances as they looked to deliver on some post-season success.
The Penguins are about to head into a 17th season with their core players: Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin. Even at 34 years of age, Sidney Crosby still finished the season amongst the best players in the NHL. In 69 games played, Crosby finished the regular season tallying 31 goals, 53 assists, and 84 total points. In the postseason, Crosby recorded 10 points in the six games played against the Rangers. The quick hands, speed, leadership, and production have remained a force in this league.
As far as Kris Letang, he is one of the most well-conditioned athletes in the league even at 34 years old. Letang has suffered from injuries and heart-related issues but it hasn’t seemed to hold him back. Amongst defencemen, Letang finished 6th overall in total points with 68 this past season. In 78 games played, he recorded 10 goals and 58 assists (career high). There is no doubt that Letang still remains the Penguins’ top defenceman even going into his 17th season in the NHL. In the playoffs, Letang scored one goal with three assists and appeared in all seven games. Letang’s work ethic wasn’t enough as the Penguin’s cracks were exposed revealing their depth was no match for the speed of the Rangers’ offence.
This season was a roller coaster ride for Evgeni Malkin. He only had 41 games played on the season. However, when he was on the ice, he was a force. Malkin was on a point-per-game pace with 20 goals, 22 assists, and 42 points in those games played. He played for all seven games of the series and hovered around a point per game in the series. Malkin didn’t play in the 2021-2022 season until January due to a knee injury.
Perhaps the biggest story during the off-season was the future of Evgeni Malkin with the Pittsburgh Penguins. There were a lot of talks that negotiations between Malkin and Penguins general manager, Ron Hextall, were not progressing well and it seemed as though Malkin would hit free agency come July 13th. The star centre would eventually sign with the Penguins for another four years. This would ensure that the trio would stick together for their 17th season.
Kris Letang signed his six-year extension just the week before Malkin dubbed him “a Penguin for life.” There was also the contract extension for forward Rickard Rakell, good for six years, $5 million AAV. The Penguins also gave Bryan Rust a six-year contract extension who was also set to become a free agent this past summer. Another move of note was the two-year extension of Kasperi Kapanen. Head coach Mike Sullivan also earned his three-year contract extension in the off-season as well.
The Penguins saw the departure of Mike Matheson, John Marino, and Louis Domingue. Added to the roster would be Jeff Petry, Ryan Poehling, Ty Smith, Jan Rutta, Dustin Tokarski and the return of Josh Archibald.
This offseason was certainly a busy one for Ron Hextall. Reportedly, he isn’t quite done yet as the Penguins make their way through the preseason.
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Rickard Rakell
Jason Zucker – Evgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Ryan Poehling – Jeff Carter – Kasperi Kapanen
The top six for the Penguins is more than likely a lock. No matter how well the young players do in camp and the preseason, there wouldn’t be a doubt who the top six would be for the Penguins. There may be a debate as to whether or not Rakell should be on the top line with Crosby. Now, Rust played many seasons on the top line. However, with Rakell’s contract extension, it would be fair to assume that Mike Sullivan would like to see Rakell have more time on the top line with Crosby. These projected top-like dominated scoring chances won almost all of their offensive zone faceoffs and had a 98.31 save percentage while they were on the ice.
I think the biggest question mark for the Penguin’s second line would be whether or not Malkin can remain healthy. There would be a big drop-off at the centre position from Malkin to Carter. Jason Zucker is a consistent player on the second line and Rust tallied a good amount of playing time on the wing for the Penguins’ top line. There may be a better chance Rust has better chemistry on a line than Rakell with Malkin at centre.
Cracks in the Penguins’ depth show in their bottom six. Jeff Carter is a strong veteran presence at centre and it would be fair to say he’s a lock on the third line. To his right, there is Kasperi Kapanen. It will be interesting to see if he can show production on the third line. Kapanen only recorded 11 goals last year, he simply has to do better. If he can have a decent bounce-back year, that would help lighten the Penguin’s depth woes. Depending on how Poehling pans out in his first season as a Penguin, McGinn could play the third line on the wing as well.
Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson – Jeff Petry
Pierre-Olivier Joseph – Jan Rutta
The only issue for the Penguins on the top pairing would be with Brian Dumoulin. If he can stay healthy and the Dumoulin prior to the injuries shows up, it would be in good shape. It will be very interesting to see how the second pairing works out. The defensive depth for the Penguins does appear to be bleak. If Dumoulin and Pettersson get injured again this season, it will be hard for Letang to pick up the slack.
There is a battle for a spot on the third pairing between Joseph and Ty Smith. Joseph reports wanting the Penguins to finally give him a chance for more NHL minutes. However, if they were truly sold on him, why acquire Ty Smith? It may be Joseph’s spot to lose but there’s no denying that the door is open.
Tristan Jarry will have to focus on delivering the same results as last regular season. Casey DeSmith is a decent backup but can crumble when put into a starting role if Jarry gets hurt. Tokarski was an interesting pick-up for the Penguins in the off-season. He will be behind DeSmith on the depth chart. However, he is a slight improvement from Louis Domingue.
Players to Watch
The biggest player to watch for the Penguins would be Malkin. His inability to stay healthy was a major talking point during his contract negotiations. Malkin is still a dominant player when he is on the ice. That means that he has to play at least more than half of the season this coming year. It will be exciting to see if Malkin can stay healthy and also deliver on production following his dramatic off-season.
Another player to watch is Tristan Jarry. He had a dominant regular season this past year. Time will tell if he can pick up where he left off in terms of his regular-season production. Was last season a fluke or just the beginning?
An honourable mention would have to be Kasperi Kapanen. As stated before, he has to produce more than 11 goals this season. He just has to. Not only to play to his potential but also to assist the Penguins to fill in the cracks in terms of their forward depth.
Prediction for 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins
With the playoff berth streak still intact, it’s hard to believe the Penguins wouldn’t make the postseason. However, when you look at the depth chart, there is very little room for error. The Penguins’ success would greatly rely on whether or not they can stay healthy. When it comes to health, luck hasn’t necessarily been on their side. History would suggest that even if they did make it into the postseason, it might end early. The Penguins are the oldest team (age-wise) in the league. Today’s NHL thrives off youth and speed.
With that being said, do not be surprised if the Penguins remain in the same position this time next year. They might make the playoffs and even squeak past the first round. Chances are, the Penguins remain a middle-of-the-road team yearning for more.
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