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These Are the Guys Who Could Shape Penguins’ Season

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Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins Kasperi Kapanen Hat Trick

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a pretty good idea of what they can expect from some of their players during the coming season.

Sidney Crosby should again be among the finest 200-foot performers in the sport, averaging better than a point per game and setting an example for his teammates all over the ice with his commitment and attention to detail.

Kris Letang, the occasional gaffe aside, will continue to be the anchor of the defense corps, blending offensive gifts, underrated physicality and exceptional conditioning.

Jake Guentzel again will be as fearless as he is efficient in the offensive zone, Chad Ruhwedel will be quietly effective in whatever duty he is given and Mark Friedman will irritate opponents more than a sharp pebble in their skate.

But even if the players whose contributions can be predicted perform exactly as expected, there are some who are wild cards, capable of producing well above — or below — what is anticipated. (The play of Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen, respectively, in 2021-22 are example of those.)

What teams are able to get out of those players can go a long toward determining how successful (or disappointing) their season is and the Penguins, like most clubs, have some at every position up front and on defense. (If the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t get consistently strong play from No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry, what the rest of the roster chips in probably won’t matter much.)

Here’s a look at the guys who, as the roster is currently constructed, shape up as the Penguins’ biggest personnel variables in 2022-23.

CENTER

Jeff Carter — He seemed ageless during the early months of last season, piling up 11 goals and nine assists in his first 29 games and filling in quite capably on the No. 2 line while Evgeni Malkin was recovering from offseason knee surgery.

But Carter’s effectiveness declined as the season progressed and he had eight goals and 17 assists in his final 45 games. (And while plus-minus obviously is a flawed, limited statistic, it’s hard to ignore that he was minus-1 in those initial 29 games, minus-7 in the last 45.)

With Sidney Crosby and Malkin returning, Carter figures to reprise his role as the third-line center, while getting work on the penalty-killing unit and No. 2 power play. He will be 38 on Jan. 1, and whether he performs like he has a wealth of experience — or is just getting old — will determine just how stable the Penguins are down the middle.

LEFT WING

Jason Zucker — Zucker has not been the offensive force the Pittsburgh Penguins anticipated when they acquired him from Minnesota in 2020, recording just 23 goals and 24 assists in 94 games.

Part of the problem has been a series of injuries, including one that required core-muscle surgery. Effort certainly isn’t an issue, as Zucker has been a vigorous and effective forechecker when he’s in the lineup.

It might not be realistic to pencil him in to match the 33 goals he scored for the Wild in 2017-18, but if Zucker can get 20-plus, it will add a dimension to a No. 2 line that has the potential to prevent opponents from focusing their defensive efforts on Crosby’s unit.

RIGHT WING

Kasperi Kapanen — He’s not exactly a polarizing figure, because Kapanen skeptics seem to far outnumber Kapanen supporters. And it’s not hard to see why.

The only thing on which there is universal agreement is that 2021-22 was a very bad season for him, as he had far more perplexing decisions — like a proclivity for curling toward the boards rather than going to the net after carrying the puck across the blue line — than points.

Still, management has enough confidence in him to have re-signed Kapanen for two years, and if he can parlay his speed and shot into goals and assists, it could give the offense a bump by allowing Mike Sullivan to deploy three lines that are a legitimate threat to score.

LEFT DEFENSE

Brian Dumoulin — Pretty much all of the Penguins’ left-handed defensemen come with some questions, but the most important one is whether Brian Dumoulin will be able to bounce back from a subpar performance last season.

If he does, Dumoulin and Letang will be a quality No. 1 pairing, as they have been for most of their time together. However, if Dumoulin stumbles, the aftershocks will ripple through the entire unit which, at least for now, does not have anyone qualified to step in alongside Letang.

Dumoulin is entering the final season of a contract with a salary-cap hit of $4.1 million, and while he doesn’t seem like a guy who needs extra motivation, playing for his next deal — and possibly his future with the Penguins — can’t hurt.

RIGHT DEFENSE

Jan Rutta — The right side of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense, headlined by Letang and Jeff Petry, might be the strongest part of their depth chart (not that having a pair of future Hall of Famers at center should be downplayed), so Rutta shouldn’t have to fill a high-profile, big-minutes niche.

Assuming Sullivan doesn’t shift him to the left side — Rutta has played both — he could prove to be a good partner on the third pairing for a lefty with offensive skills, like Ty Smith or P.O Joseph.

Being enough of a responsible defensive presence to allow a young player to develop his offensive game at this level would more than justify the three-year contract the Penguins gave Rutta a few weeks ago.

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Crosby32746@yahoo.com
Crosby32746@yahoo.com
8 days ago

Zucker will have his best season as a Penguin. It is his contract year, so he will miraculously stay healthy!!! It’s funny how that happens during a WALK year!

Benny
Benny
8 days ago

He could easily have his best season w the pens if he stays healthy…

Dean
Dean
8 days ago

Zucker may be the key, but not in the way expected. He may be the right player for us to pull a Tampa Bay. Zucker should go on LTIR for the season to strengthen his core muscle. If there is any question, he should get surgery and take a long recovery period that corresponds to the start of the playoffs. That would solve our cap issue, and a completely healthy Zucker could be the surprise the Pens need in the playoff.

Ethan
8 days ago
Reply to  Dean

Agree completely. Plus there are certain redundencies in zucker and kappy’s game that just dont merit almost 9 million. If you cant move one, i have wondered about option you describe. Oh where oh where is that physical 2nd line wing…

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  Dean

Yeah.. don’t play all season then show up in the playoffs and light it up that’ll happen. If there was any question.. he would have got surgery this off season. He’s healthy now so should be expected to play the whole season.

Knobman
Knobman
8 days ago

I’m hoping Malkin can stay healthy this season, so that Carter can stay on the third line. After Malkin signed and other centers found new homes, was thinking that E-Rod would be a good third line center that would move Carter to 3RW. That would provide some center depth when Malkin misses half the season again. Zucker and Dumo are a toss-up. Nobody knows what they will bring. Kap should play on the PK to keep him engaged in the game. I have no confidence that he will provide anything positive and didn’t think he deserved a QO. I think… Read more »

Brandon O
Brandon O
8 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

So are you scratching dumoulin or petterson to dress ruh?

I agree with kap on pk. He has the speed and skating ability to pressure the high zone and disrupt the passing to create shorthanded rushes. At 5v5, If he can focus his game away from the puck to being a disruptive forechecker, the pressure to score won’t be as great. He could create chaos like tanev. I believe kap can change his game and be a valuable piece.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
8 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

Geno’s knee is fine. I wish some people would give it a rest. Injuries are unfortunately part of hockey. Every player gets injured unless they are Phil Kessel and avoid contact.

Brandon O
Brandon O
8 days ago

Zucker has a chip on his shoulder and will be aiming to prove he still has it. He’s a high character guy and a leader, can produce 50+ points if healthy. Is there any word on if he is fully recovered? I think he will bounce back nicely. Kapanen thrives off confidence and for whatever reason, he lost it early on last year. Although he didn’t get back thr scoring touch, he was improving late in the season and his play picked up. I think the adversity will do him well and he’ll be mentally tougher this year. I think… Read more »

Alan Smith
8 days ago

Pens are solid everywhere! Rebuilds are all getting better but they are no where near the Pen manpower! They just need to coast through the regular season without injuries! Always thought they were good for another goal when needed! Don’t think they should try to just protect 2 goal leads! Got the best scoring talent in the NHL! Go Pens!

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
8 days ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

Look I Love our Pens but when you say this I think you must be High!
Oilers, Avalanche, Leafs , Lightning!
Ever seen them play?
Pens do not have best scoring talent in NHL. Go Pens!

ric Jefferies
ric Jefferies
8 days ago

The sum is greater than its parts. Pairing who plays best with whom, (the role of coaching), can make a less than great skater perform better than his ability. This is why Sid is so important on the ice, he has the ability to make all players on the ice with him play better. So in ranking how “good” a player is one must consider with whom he plays with.

Travis
Travis
8 days ago

By mid-Season poelhing could be third line center, he was seriously tossed around in Montreal ,this guy is good and way faster the Carter.

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  Travis

Way faster? Carter is a pretty good skater and was 5th. I REPEAT. 5th on the team in scoring. He even scored more than the beloved Evan Rodrigeus

Michael Koritko
Michael Koritko
8 days ago

Nailed it on a player by player basis, Dave. If everything breaks right, it’s a really formidable team. If things don’t go well for those players you listed… they limp into the playoffs and lose first round for sure.

I find myself surprisingly optimistic on some of them posting comeback seasons and it being another good/fun season to watch

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
8 days ago

Pretty much on board with your sentiments. Not sure about Dumoulin though, kinda think a defenseman or two will go, he may be one. I really want to see the kid from NJ get a chance with the big club.

Michael Koritko
Michael Koritko
8 days ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

Would be fun to watch. He’s probably the longest shot though, right? Since he’s waiver eligible… gotta think Ruhwedel, Joseph, Friedman then Smith (in that order) are in line to compete for one spot at this point unless there’s a trade. And if there is a trade… Dumo is most likely since Pettersen seems so undervalued. If you gotta package a pick just to move his contract… he’s a good, fairly paid middle pair guy

Last edited 8 days ago by Michael Koritko
Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
8 days ago

Dumo had a tiny regression last season but he is still better than all of the other LHD on the roster.

Phil
Phil
7 days ago

Ageed I dont understand some of the comments on dumo. Hes our only proven top pairing LHD! We have no replacement for him. Petterson is not a top pairing LHD. Neither poj or smith are either. So trading dumoulin makes this blueline worse with no replacement. He had one tiny regression season and everyone wants to trade him. That would be a big mistake. We need Brian dumoulin! Clearing cap space for the sake of having extra money without replacing the only top pairing LHD on the team is redundant.

AnthonyB
AnthonyB
7 days ago

Carter did dissappear for a bit, but 19 goals isn’t bad for a 3rd line center. Look elsewhere

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