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A Defining Week for Penguins, Kyle Dubas

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Kyle Dubas, Pittsburgh Penguins. Trade talk. Free Agency. NHL Draft

The clock is ticking for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

There is one week until the NHL free-agent frenzy. Four days until the 2024 NHL Draft. But those are the immediate dates to affect the change and set the course for an organization that is hearing the thunderous beats of the clock ticking down on their Stanley Cup dynasty players and the hopes to give them one more shot at glory, at least a respectful send-off.

The core three, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, will be in their late 30s this season. Malkin turns 38, while Crosby and Letang will be 37 next season. The Penguins have missed the playoffs two seasons running and have thus far made no changes to the roster that was able to make early vacation plans.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas is beginning his second year with the franchise. He’s wisely playing the long game, keeping one eye on the future rather than going all-in on one more ride for the core.

However, the big three are still the team’s present and cannot be neglected. Otherwise, there is no point—nay, no respect—in continuing with them. The dichotomy of building two teams, the present and the future, is difficult and one that felled former GM Ron Hextall.

And the next week will be a defining one for Dubas.

First, the Penguins must get Crosby, the franchise pillar, under contract. His deal expires next summer, and the distraction of letting that linger will reverberate with increasingly large effects that could shove the Penguins into a rebuild before they’re ready.

And then comes the task of improving a roster whose late-season rally got them to only 88 points.

Failure to improve the roster will essentially shut down the need for the core three. Running it back for another go, but another year older, won’t be a recipe for success. Surely, everyone involved, from the players to Dubas, knows that to be fact.

And what Dubas does next could come to define his Penguins tenure.

Should Dubas deftly navigate the free agent frenzy, bringing in the right pieces with the approximately $9 to $10 million war chest and improving the team, this will fortify the young boss’s path. It wouldn’t hurt his reputation, either.

Should Dubas whiff, tossing money at players who don’t improve the results, things could go sideways quickly.

The draft will also present a difficult challenge. Dubas spent this year’s first-round pick on acquiring Erik Karlsson as a day-early birthday present to Crosby, so the Penguins’ first picks will be second-rounders, 44th and 46th overall, which is not exactly the realm of guaranteed success.

The Penguins need prospects, and they’re about out of tradeable veterans to get them. They need to hit on a few, and soon. Shockingly, the most successful draft pick of the last eight years is winger Valterri Puustinen, a seventh-rounder in 2019 who cracked the lineup this season and played 52 games.

2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin has yet to make his mark, playing only six NHL games. The previous draft pick to get more than 50 games in a Penguins sweater was 2015 second-round pick Daniel Sprong.

Yes, it’s been that bad for Penguins picks. But, hey, 2018 pick Filip Hallander played three games for the team before being traded away and never again reaching the NHL. That’s something, right?

Dubas did his best to serve both objectives when he traded Jake Guentzel to the Carolina Hurricanes for Michael Bunting, a second-round pick (it would have been Carolina’s first-round pick if they made it to the Stanley Cup Final), and three prospects: Villie Koivunen, Vasily Ponomarev, and Cruz Lucius.

Because of the barren wasteland of prospects that more resembles a Max Max movie, the three newbies immediately vaulted toward the top of the Penguins’ prospect pool despite being only in the middle of Carolina’s depth chart.

Penguins 2023 first-round pick, forward Brayden Yager, is coming along in the WHL, but he’s probably a year, if not two, away from NHL ice time. 2022 first-round pick, defenseman Owen Pickering, is entering prospect limbo. Injuries and a lack of substantial progression have cooled expectations, though he’s only 20 years old.

A couple of other prospects, such as 2021 second-rounder Tristan Broz, may break through, and goalie Joel Blomqvist is almost ready. Otherwise, the Penguins badly need prospects.

And that’s why Dubas needs to hit on at least one of the upcoming picks. The 2019 draft was indeed the last time a draft pick even played an NHL game for the team (or anywhere).

It was Dubas’s choice to trade away the 2024 first-round pick. If nothing comes of the 2024 draft, it will only exacerbate the need to trade veterans for prospects that others wisely drafted, plunging the team into a deeper rebuild instead of the smooth transition that they’re attempting.

It’s not a make-or-break moment for Dubas, but it is pivotal. Flub the 2024 summer, and plans might need to change in 2025; harder conversations with Hall of Fame players be had, painful goodbyes said, and creating an even more frustrated fan base.

However, if Dubas hits a home run or two in the coming week, the mood will lift. Optimism sells tickets and lifts TV viewership. Winning and playoffs bring millions in valuable revenues, and would put Dubas in a position of strength for the transition to the next phase.

No pressure, but this week has far more riding on it than you might expect.