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Penguins Great Change and Youth; 3 Real Reasons for Optimism

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Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins season is over—kaput. Fin. Yet the most important questions remain, and more are being asked after the remarkable run for a playoff spot fell short, failing to camouflage an otherwise turbulent season.

The big-name targets have not yet drawn heat. The playoff race, which ended Tuesday, followed by Jeff Carter’s retirement Wednesday, filled the headlines, but Thursday morning, the team will say their goodbyes and the real work for shaping the 2024-25 team will begin.

Next season is a long way off. It will be six months before regular-season hockey is played at PPG Paints Arena. President of hockey operations Kyle Dubas will figuratively use a scalpel, or maybe a sledgehammer, to reshape the roster between now and then. Still, change is as inevitable as the Penguins giving up a goal shortly after scoring one.

To their great credit, the Penguins closed with an 8-1-3 run. They did so with the most spirited play to emanate from the crest in a couple of years. It wasn’t always great, but their desire to win finally outshone their propensity to lose.

It may have taken hitting rock bottom with the Jake Guentzel trade just before the NHL trade deadline, but the Penguins finally began to find themselves.

“We were really proud of the group … a month ago, we weren’t in the greatest situation. There was a lot of drama around the team. They had a choice in which direction they wanted to go,” Sullivan said. “It could have gone the wrong way really easily. And I just think it speaks volumes for the character of the people in the dressing room. And they never looked for excuses. They were determined to drag themselves back into the fight and give themselves a chance. And that’s what we did.”

It could have sunk, the team forcing Dubas to rip it apart ruthlessly and unceremoniously. Instead, the end run breathed new life into the organization, allowing Dubas the opportunity to add talent without first destroying the team.

3 Reasons for Penguins Optimism for Next Season

P.O Joseph, Jack St. Ivany

The youth in the Penguins lineup made its appearance after the NHL trade deadline. Jack St. Ivany teamed with Ryan Graves first, then Ryan Shea to form an honest-to-goodness, reliable third pairing.

St. Ivany isn’t a top-four defenseman, but he provided a net-clearing presence that helped the Penguins goalies. He defended hard and will only get better.

P.O. Joseph seemingly took an enormous step in his NHL career, moving from bubble player fighting for a roster spot or hanging onto the third pairing to beginning to reach his full potential. He has chemistry with Kris Letang, and they formed a worthy pairing at the top of the Penguins’ blue-line depth chart.

It’s not the stat lines but the existence of Joseph and St. Ivany that should excite the Penguins.

Joseph and St. Ivany remove Dubas’s need to shop and potentially overpay for a defenseman on the free-agent market or via trade. The pair solidified the Penguins’ blue line.

Add the 27-year-old Shea to the list of positives, too. He may be more of a seventh-defenseman type, but his work over the final month of the season was worthy of an NHL sweater.

More Youth

The Penguins’ evolution happened quickly. In January, there were few players in the lineup who were not yet of legal age to rent a car without paying extra fees. By March, there were typically a handful of youthful or inexperienced players who asserted themselves as lineup regulars.

And therein lies another savory reason for optimism.

It is unlikely that 2023 first-round pick Braden Yager will emerge and take a roster spot. The same applies to 2022 first-rounder Owen Pickering. Yager has a much better chance, but they’re both probably a year or more away.

However, in addition to Joseph and St. Ivany, Drew O’Connor elevated his game in the second half of the season. He went from being a nice third-line winger to a 25-year-old middle-six winger who consistently contributed on Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s lines.

O’Connor started blowing past defensemen, making some competent NHL defenders look like pylons at the blue line. He doesn’t use nifty stickhandling but instead pure speed on the outside. He also added aggressive puck retrieval to the special skills section on his resume.

Valtteri Puustinen didn’t solidify his spot in the lineup, scoring only 20 points in 52 games. Before scoring in the season finale against the Islanders, he went 14 games without a goal and had only three assists in that time. He has work to do, but he also flashed the potential to be depth scoring.

The Great Change

The stench from the collapse and misery that engulfed the end of the GM Ron Hextall era, concluding in a shocking end to the Penguin’s 16-year Stanley Cup playoffs streak, carried over to this season.

While players were different, the mood, the vibe, and the results for the first five months of the season were an identical match to the costly slopfest in the final month of last season.

After hitting rock bottom in the weeks before and after the trade deadline, players such as Michael Bunting brought needed elements—physicality and energy—to the lineup. Add St. Ivany to that mix.

The Penguins took on a new personality after the NHL trade deadline. Sure, they blew a few more leads, and the power play gagged on a few more shorthanded goals, but the power play also began to look competent with Bunting near the net. The Penguins began to play with some urgency and determination.

They were no longer an easy game.

The reasons for the Penguins’ change are many. We have six months to dissect them, but those foul winds that swirled around the team from last season and didn’t stop with Hextall’s termination were finally replaced with the fresh air of vitality and winning, even if they didn’t get to the playoffs.

When the team reconvenes in September, there will be genuine hope on the inside, and that’s the biggest reason for optimism about what comes next.