The Pittsburgh Penguins will open the 2023-24 season with a game against Chicago Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Those would be the same Blackhawks who stunned the Penguins in their final home game last season, dealing them a soul-crushing 5-2 defeat that all but officially knocked the Penguins out of the Stanley Cup playoffs for first time since 2006.
The Blackhawks didn’t qualify for the 2023 postseason, either, but that doesn’t make them stand out from the Penguins’ most recent — and future — opponents.
Fact is, they will not face an opponent that appeared in this spring’s playoffs until their sixth game, when Dallas visits PPG Paints Arena Oct. 24. Before that, the Penguins will take on Chicago and Calgary at home and make trips to Washington, Detroit and St. Louis.
Their run of games against non-playoff opposition actually began during the final week of last season, when they won in Detroit before losing at home to the Blackhawks and in Columbus to put a grim punctuation mark on their 16-season run of postseason appearances.
And while it hardly was by design, none of the four teams the Penguins faced in exhibition play during the past two weeks — Columbus, Detroit, Buffalo and Ottawa — played beyond the regular-season finale in 2022-23, either.
Of course, it’s worth noting that all of those teams seem to be on an upward trajectory, and the Red Wings, Sabres and Senators figure to be legitimate threats to end their playoff droughts six-plus months from now. The Blue Jackets’ climb will be a bit steeper — especially since the Eastern Conference includes some quality teams that won’t finish in the top eight — but there’s a solid collection of young talent being assembled in Columbus.
Ties that bind
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ team-building activities in Nova Scotia last weekend inspired memories of an observation delivered by Petr Nedved in the mid-1990s.
The Penguins were preparing to embark on a lengthy road trip, and Nedved was discussing the intangible benefits of having the group together while it was away from home for an extended period.
“There will,” he said, “be a lot of bondage going on.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins are about to to pare their roster to the group that will open the regular season, and it’s pretty much a certainty that at least a few guys capable of contributing at this level will be squeezed out.
The Penguins are expected to carry only 21 or 22 players (league rules allow a maximum of 23), with salary-cap considerations conceivably being a factor in some of the decisions that will be made by president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas and his staff and coaches.
Dubas has, by any measure, made the Penguins considerably more imposing than they were when he was hired June 1 but, predictably, not all of his moves have worked out the way team officials hoped they would.
The most obvious example is winger Rem Pitlick, who was acquired from Montreal as part of the Erik Karlsson trade.
Pitlick had been expected to seriously challenge for a bottom-six job, but never really did anything to stake a claim to one of those positions and was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before the Penguins went to Nova Scotia last weekend.
He was joined on waivers then by defenseman Ty Smith, another guy who has not had the impact anticipated when he was acquired.
Former GM Ron Hextall got Smith, who earned a spot on the NHL’s all-rookie team in 2021, from New Jersey in the trade that sent John Marino to the Devils a little more than a year ago.
He spent most of last season in Wilkes-Barre, working to exorcise the soft spots in his defensive game that outweighed the value of his offensive abilities.
Smith was quite ordinary during this camp, however, and never gave management reason to keep him for a longer view.
While it’s premature to write off Pitlick or Smith — either or both could get his game in order in Wilkes-Barre and fill a meaningful role with the Penguins if called upon this season — the onus is on them to prove they can be the players the Penguins believed they could be when they were brought in.