The Pittsburgh Penguins have provided weeks of excitement, intense speculation, and a satisfying conclusion. The few months from the sunset of the slightly crusty and extremely frustrating Ron Hextall era to the dawn of the currently sunny Kyle Dubas regime has created more positive offseason interest than at any point since 2015.
The transition to the Dubas era has been as jolting and conflicting as watching the end of Revenge of the Sith directly into New Hope.
Perhaps those movie titles are also apropos. (They’re Star Wars Ep. 3 and 4, for you weirdos who have never seen the movies.)
However, the Penguins don’t feel like a finished product.
The Penguins’ bottom-six is missing a scorer, and the defense will rely on depth defenders/borderline NHL players to round out the bottom pairing.
This brings us to the opinions that make Penguins Twitter, er, Penguins X, mad and a potential big splash next summer.
3. Ty Smith should start the season with the Penguins but isn’t a top-six defenseman
There is a great tendency to overestimate some of the Penguins’ younger players. Hey, they’re younger and don’t come with the baggage (read: past mistakes and disappointments) that some of the current NHL roster players bring.
Buried far away in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, young players become blank canvases of hope and projection for a fanbase searching for tangible answers as to why so few young players reach the Penguins’ lineup.
Smith, 23, has ample NHL experience (123 games). There’s plenty of video on what he did in the NHL. The Penguins got a few very good looks at his game last season. First, they saw him daily in training camp, when he had every opportunity to win a roster spot. They also watched him with the WBS Penguins and in nine games of NHL action, when he played beside Brian Dumoulin.
Without trashing, bashing, or criticizing Smith — because there is absolutely no reason to do any of that — Smith didn’t claim a spot. He put up nice numbers — four points (1-3-4) in those nine games with the Penguins — but there is far more to consider for a defenseman.
Smith isn’t fast, nor is he especially physical. At 5-foot-11, he’s not large, either. The Penguins’ organization may find an NHLer in Smith, but perhaps he would benefit from more work with associate coach Todd Reirden.
If you’re uneasy about a P.O Joseph-Chad Ruhwedel third pair, a Smith-Ruhwedel pair is even more sketchy. From here, it would make sense to have Smith and the “other” seventh defenseman rotate as Smith works with the big club, then returns to the AHL to apply the lessons. After a time, we’ll see if he can keep the thread on the defensive side of the red line.
The great thing about professional sports is the meritorious aspect. If you prove yourself, you play. Based on Dubas’s offseason comments, Smith will get a shot. I don’t think he’s better than Joseph or will fit with the team’s rediscovered up-tempo game, but he’ll have the opportunity, and that’s all anyone can ask.
2. Dubas is a Magician, but Goalies are Achilles Heel
There should be no question that Kyle Dubas is one of the better GMs in the game. He finds a way to get things done, whether it be an extension for Mitch Marner against all odds or the trade for Erik Karlsson. Dubas is creative and shrewd.
However, goaltending has been a soft spot on most of his teams. Dubas has rolled the dice with the Penguins’ goaltending, too.
No, starting goalie Tristan Jarry isn’t the big gamble, but the backup goalies are. Alex Nedeljkovic had a terrible 2022-23 season. He played more games in the AHL than the NHL, but he’ll be both the Penguins’ insurance policy against further injuries to Jarry and the goalie tasked with playing about 30-35 games.
As a third goalie, Nedeljkovic was a very good bet. As the primary backup, the Penguins are one moment away from relying on Nedeljkovic to preserve their increasingly high hopes this season.
Laurent Brossoit and Antti Raanta would have been much safer signings for similar money (if they were willing to come to Pittsburgh). With the benefit of hindsight, Alex Lyon, who signed with Detroit for $900,000 for two seasons, also seemed a slightly better, if not safer, and less expensive option.
Nedeljkovic is undoubtedly a gamble. If the goalie recaptures his rookie-year form, it will be rewarding. The Penguins may regret the gamble if he has another year like the last.
1. Superstar UFA?
I don’t think Dubas swiping one of his former star players from Toronto via free agency next summer is absurd. If Toronto doesn’t make a bold run at the Stanley Cup this coming season, the fanbase might disassemble the team via a cacophony of unquenchable dissatisfaction.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander will be unrestricted free agents next summer. Mitch Marner has two more years.
What better way to shortcut a rebuild?
The Penguins will have $66 million committed to 14 players. The only impact player reaching unrestricted free agency will be Jake Guentzel, and the NHL salary cap figures to spike by a few million. So, the Penguins will have about $20 million to round out their bottom-six, bottom defensive pairing, sign a backup goalie, and have one space open in their top-six forwards crew.
One month ago, I might have told you this idea was far-fetched, but Dubas opened the door to the unthinkable with the trade for Erik Karlsson.