No one knows exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster will look like when they open the regular season Oct. 13 against Arizona.
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After all, it’s always possible that someone will surprise by winning a job during training camp — remember what Brian Boyle did in 2021? — and the threat of a significant injury during drills or exhibition games certainly can’t be ruled out.
But with only about 2 1/2 weeks to go before this season’s first on-ice workout, which is scheduled for Sept. 22 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, president of hockey operations Brian Burke feels this team is better than the one that lost to the New York Rangers in seven games during Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And not only because Tristan Jarry, Brian Dumoulin, Rickard Rakell and Sidney Crosby, all of whom missed significant time in that series because of injuries, are believed to be fully healthy.
For that matter, adding defensemen Jeff Petry and Ty Smith via trades and Jan Rutta in free agency doesn’t appear to be the primary reason for his optimism, either.
Instead, Burke points to something that isn’t different as the main source of his assessment.
For when the Rangers series ended, it was far from certain that Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell — all of whom were eligible for unrestricted free agency — still would be on the Penguins’ payroll this fall.
Or even that any of them would be.
But management made keeping the team’s core intact the keystone of its approach to the offseason, and Ron Hextall was able to get all four under contract. Whether making long-term commitments to veterans like Letang and Malkin, who are in their mid-30s, was prudent might not be evident for a while, but Burke emphatically endorsed the concept.
“That was a critical part of the strategy, obviously, to bring back (Letang) and Malkin,” he said. “To me, bringing them back makes our team better than if they weren’t here, which was in doubt.”
Burke characterized Rakell, picked up from Anaheim at the trade deadline, as “a key addition,” and noted the importance of “getting (Rust) locked up.”
Although the signings and acquisitions have left the Pittsburgh Penguins a bit above the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling of $82.5 million for the coming season, Burke pointed out that they could get under it by assigning some waivers-exempt players who are expected to compete for major-league jobs to Wilkes-Barre. Drew O’Connor and Smith would be prominent on that list.
They also could deal a defenseman or two, since they currently have nine NHL-caliber ones scheduled to be at camp.
“We don’t have anything active (with trade discussions) right now,” Burke said. “But other teams have asked about our (defensemen), so it’s a possibility.”
He believes there are more clubs that would be amenable to making a trade than a cursory glance at their cap status might suggest, that “there’s a number of teams” able to become cap-compliant by making tactical demotions or placing personnel on the Long-Term Injured list.
Because potential trades can come together — or fall apart — with a single phone call, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ personnel situation figures to remain somewhat fluid in coming weeks.
Nonetheless, Burke does not appear to anticipate any moves of consequence before the preseason gets underway.
“I don’t know if we’re going to do anything else between now and camp,” he said. “It’s unlikely, but the phones are still ringing. This time of year, people are still calling around.”
And when they contact the Pittsburgh Penguins, they can expect to speak with a front office that seems fairly satisfied, at least for now, with the talent it has assembled.
“I think we’re a better team,” Burke said. “Now, we’re just waiting for camp to start.”