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Analysis: How Does Penguins’ Roster Shape Up?

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NHL trade, Kris Letang (left) and Sidney Crosby (right). Pittsburgh Penguins

We probably won’t know for a while what kind of return the Pittsburgh Penguins will get on Ron Hextall’s decision to keep his veteran core intact for at least a few more seasons.

Maybe it will yield the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup. Perhaps it will doom the team to doing a credible impersonation of the 1980s Hartford Whalers for much of this decade.

The depth chart does seem to be upgraded, at least a bit, from the one that finished third in the Metropolitan Division in 2021-22, and there is a palpable sense of optimism in the locker room. The question is whether that confidence will translate to points in the standings.

Here’s a look at what can be expected from members of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 22-man roster as they prepare for the regular-season opener Thursday evening against Arizona:

FORWARD COMBINATIONS

Jake Guentzel — Sidney Crosby — Rickard Rakell

This has the potential to be one of the most productive lines in the NHL this season.

Crosby remains one of the game’s elite talents and Guentzel is a two-time 40-goal man who could take a serious run at scoring 50. Rakell is a top-six-caliber talent who could benefit from the attention Crosby and Guentzel figure to receive from opposing defenses.

While it’s hard to imagine Crosby and Guentzel being separated by anything other than an injury, Rakell — who had no goals and two assists in four preseason appearances — could be replaced by Bryan Rust if Rakell doesn’t jell with his linemates the way the coaches hope.

Jason Zucker — Evgeni Malkin — Bryan Rust 

Zucker is healthy and had a strong training camp, and might finally be ready to produce the way the Penguins expected when they acquired him from Minnesota in 2020.

He and Rust should be a particularly formidable set of forecheckers, and both are capable of contributing 25 goals.

The wild card here is Malkin, the future Hall of Famer. He is 36, but had a good preseason and seems intent on validating the four-year commitment management made to him over the summer.

Danton Heinen — Jeff Carter — Kasperi Kapanen

Carter started strong last season, but tailed off during the second half. The onus will be on him to prove that skid was an aberration, not a by-product of being 37 years old. Regardless, Mike Sullivan should manage his playing time carefully.

The Pittsburgh Penguins got a bargain when Heinen, who scored a career-high 18 goals in 2021-22, returned for $1 million after going on the market as an unrestricted free agent. They should be quite pleased if he can match that output.

Re-signing Kapanen was a controversial, risky move after how he underachieved for most of last season. However, if he can play to his potential — Kapanen skates well and has a very good shot — he could have a positive impact at even-strength and on both special-teams.

Brock McGinn — Teddy Blueger/Ryan Poehling — Josh Archibald

Poehling, acquired from Montreal in the trade for Petry, played well during camp, but likely will be the odd-man out when Blueger, who has been injured for several weeks, is deemed healthy enough to play. However, Poehling can play the wing, too, so he will be a valuable 13th forward to have around.

McGinn and Archibald might be most valuable as penalty-killers — the Penguins struggled when shorthanded during the stretch drive and Rangers series — but also will be counted on to be effective, defensively, at even-strength.

McGinn could chip in some offense — he had goals in consecutive games twice last season and scored three in a four-game span once — but that should not be something for which the Penguins count on him.

DEFENSE PAIRINGS

Brian Dumoulin — Kris Letang

Although Letang is the unquestioned leader of this unit — and still one of the best defensemen in the NHL — Dumoulin is the linchpin of the Penguins’ entire blue-line group.

If he can rebound from a disappointing season (as well as an injury that forced him to miss most of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers) and be the effective complement to Letang that he has been for most of their time together, the other left-side defensemen can be slotted into roles commensurate with their skillsets and styles.

Conversely, if Dumoulin falters, Sullivan might be hard-pressed to find a capable replacement, and could disrupt the entire defense while searching for one.

Letang is coming off a strong season that convinced Hextall to give him a six-year contract, and will be relied on to remain a difference-maker all over the ice.

Marcus Pettersson — Jeff Petry

Petry was Hextall’s most prominent — and important — addition during the off-season, at least in the relatively short-term.

He brings an offensive dimension that the guy who effectively was his predecessor, John Marino, has not shown through his first three pro seasons, and might never. Then again, Petry will be 35 Dec. 9, so it’s difficult to project how much longer he’ll be able to perform at peak efficiency.

Petry inherited Marino’s old partner, Pettersson, and those two have the makings of an effective partnership. Pettersson is content to focus on playing in his own zone, which should allow Petry to take an occasional gamble and be active in the offense, whether it’s by joining the rush or making a 50-50 pinch to get possession of the puck in the attacking zone.

P.O Joseph/Chad Ruhwedel — Jan Rutta

Until Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Penguins assigned Ty Smith to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, he had been the frontrunner to start the season on Rutta’s left side.

The Penguins like Smith’s offensive abilities and it would not be surprising if he’s back with the parent club soon, since he was demoted mostly because he, unlike all of the Penguins’ other defensemen, did not require waivers.

Until then, Joseph probably should be the one paired with Rutta, because his game, while still a work-in-progress, has offensive upside that Ruhwedel’s does not, and Rutta’s defensive style would allow Joseph to exploit it.

Ruhwedel, meanwhile, is an ideal depth guy. He performed well as a top-six regular in 2021-22, but also proven capable of sitting out for extended periods, then stepping into the lineup and performing well.

GOALTENDERS

Tristan Jarry — Casey DeSmith

Any lingering questions about Jarry won’t be answered until he has a strong playoff run, although his gutsy effort on an injured foot in Game 7 against the Rangers should have eased some of the concerns about his ability to perform in high-stakes games. (Those, of course, stem from his stumble late in Round 1 against the New York Islanders in 2021.)

What isn’t in dispute is the way he can produce during the regular season, as he showed again in 2021-22. Jarry’s .919 save percentage was the NHL’s seventh-best among goalies who appeared in more than six games and his 2.42 goals-against average placed sixth among those who played in more than five.

Jarry not only stops pucks, but passes them pretty well, too, and that adds a dimension to the Penguins’ transition game.

DeSmith is, in some ways, like Ruhwedel: Perfect for the niche he feels. He has a relatively modest salary and accepts the role he’s been given, but plays well enough when given an opportunity to maintain the pressure on Jarry to stay as sharp as possible.

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hockeyfan68
hockeyfan68
1 month ago

Kinda like Chad in the 3rd D pair. Played pretty well last year, never heard his name and comments like to many errors, turnovers etc. like having solid d not mistakes until things settle with new players

Alan Smith
1 month ago

Seems to be as complete a team as any in the east! The age thing is a debate when they are all-stars and former number one picks! Like their chances winning the division and being in the Cup finals! Got to be hard trying to defend possibly the best four line team in the NHL! We will see! I for one will enjoy the most exciting offensive team in the NHL! Go Pens!

Pete
Pete
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

Guess you’ve never seen Colorado, Edmonton, Toronto, or Carolina.

Pepper
Pepper
1 month ago

Fair analysis. I continue to think they will have a solid regular season and then bow out early in the playoffs. Given the age of most of their best players, this is probably the last year to realistically expect a Cup run. Father Time is undefeated and will remain so. There are just too many “ifs” regarding this team for me to think a long run is coming this spring. If Crosby, Malkin, Rust, Letang, Zucker, Carter, Dumo, Jarry all stay healthy. All older or have a history of injuries. If Malkin, Dumo and Petry have bounce back seasons. If… Read more »

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Pepper

Every team is full of ifs, a lot of them are the same as the penguins.

James
James
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

That’s exactly right

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
1 month ago

Good analysis Dave. I like Chad as the bubble defenseman, but he is an adequate bottom pair option. I still maintain Smith belongs in the lineup and a move is still needed. I can live with the groupings as to the forwards, and goaltending is fine as is. Looking forward to Thursday and beyond. Let’s go Pens!

Jake W
Jake W
1 month ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

I wouldn’t the upset if we eventually move Joseph for some draft picks (hopefully at least a second, but that might be a pipe dream) or if Joseph performs well, move Pettersson for some futures as well. Joseph performing and Pettersson for futures would be the ideal move for me. Then we can get Smith into the lineup and really see what we have with him.

Dean
Dean
1 month ago

Dave would like to see an article on getting the cap space manageable for the season.

We became cap compliant, but what will the Pens do to create the cap space they need to operate a 23-man roster and not be in the position they have been in the past where they can’t bring players up later in the year?

How long can they play with what they have until a significant contract from one player ($2.75+) is either out on LTIR for the year or traded?