The Pittsburgh Penguins’ seemingly interminable — though occasionally frenetic — offseason is winding down.
Took long enough, but for those who didn’t remember, that’s what happens to a team when its season ends in mid-April. (Penguins partisans who might have forgotten that hard truth are to be forgiven, since 2023 was the first time since 2006 that their team didn’t qualify for postseason play.)
Some long, deadly-dull stretches aside, much has changed since the Penguins ended 2022-23 with a 3-2 overtime loss in Columbus 4 1/2 months ago.
A lot of guys whose fingerprints were on that most disappointing of seasons — Ron Hextall, Brian Burke, Chris Pryor, Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry, Danton Heinen and Brian Dumoulin, among others — are gone, along with the likes of Jason Zucker, Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald and Casey DeSmith.
Their places in the front office and on the roster have been taken by Kyle Dubas, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Graves, Reilly Smith, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, Rem Pitlick, Andreas Johnsson, Matt Nieto and Alex Nedeljkovic.
And there’s at least one other difference from this spring: A sense of optimism that has replaced the gloom and foreboding about the future that had enveloped the franchise during its late-season flameout.
Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have quite a few questions to answer when training camp opens three weeks from today. Here are five of the most pressing:
1. Who replaces Jake Guentzel?
This shouldn’t be an issue for long — the Penguins hope that Guentzel, who is recovering from ankle surgery, will only miss the first couple weeks of the regular season — but given how fiercely competitive the playoff races figure to be in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, surrendering even a few points in early autumn could be costly six months later.
There’s been no indication lately that Dubas is aggressively seeking a short-term fill-in for Guentzel from outside the organization, so Mike Sullivan and his staff presumably will have to settle on someone already on the payroll to plug into that spot. Drew O’Connor could be an intriguing candidate.
2. What will the third and fourth lines look like?
O’Connor’s full-time position figures to be in the bottom-six, where he’s one of the few holdovers from last season.
The consensus is that, thanks to the infusion of free agents in July, those lines have the potential to be significantly more effective and productive than they were in 2022-23, but figuring out who should be deployed where — and which guys’ games mesh best — could involve a lot of experimentation in a fairly short period of time.
3. Will Graves and Pettersson mesh with Karlsson and Letang?
While it’s not reasonable to expect Karlsson to replicate his Norris Trophy-winning performance in 2022-23, neither is it a stretch to suggest that Kris Letang should have a good bounce-back season after all he endured, personally and professionally, last winter.
But for either, let alone both, to be at his best, he’ll need to work well with his partner on the left side, and both will have a new one this season. While Ryan Graves and Marcus Pettersson both have defense-oriented styles that should complement Karlsson and Letang, allowing the latter two to take advantage of their offensive abilities, only practices and games will determine the best possible pairings.
4. How can the special teams improve?
A lot of factors contributed to the Penguins’ failure to get into the playoffs, but an underachieving power play and woeful penalty-killing merit a prominent place on the list.
Karlsson, who presumably will man the left point on the No. 1 unit, should help a power play that converted just 21.7 percent of its chances despite featuring a couple of future Hall of Famers, and the penalty-kill place 16th in the league with a success rate of just 79.1 percent. Graves and some of those new bottom-six forwards will be counted on to bump up that number; if they can’t, it could be a long, cold winter.
5. Is Smith a good fit with Malkin?
Zucker, who finally managed to stay healthy, put up 27 goals in 78 games as the Penguins’ second-line left winger, but Dubas opted to let him leave via free agency.
He acquired Smith from Vegas to plug that hole, and that wasn’t a reach, considering that Smith has a solid 200-foot game and that he scored 26 times last season. It will, however, be critical for him to establish that he can work well with Malkin, because the Pittsburgh Penguins figure to again rely on their top two lines to generate a hefty percentage of their offense.