The Pittsburgh Penguins’ most competitive training camp in recent memory is winding down, and the makeup of their roster for the regular-season opener against Chicago Tuesday night finally has been all but settled.
While there could be a tweak or two in the form of a trade or some other personnel move, it is, by almost any measure, an upgrade on the group that sputtered its way out of playoff contention during the waning days of the 2022-23 regular season.
Almost as important is that since being hired June 1, president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has prioritized improving the Penguins’ organizational depth, so they now have quite a few players who won’t start the season on the major-league roster but should be able to step in and do a credible job if/when they are needed because of injuries or subpar showings by players in the NHL.
For now, however, here’s a look at the guys expected to be on the roster when the Blackhawks come to town:
Noel Acciari — His history shows that Acciari could be an ideal fourth-line center for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has a solid frame (5-foot-10, 209 pounds), plays with a physical edge and generally fares well in one-on-one situations.
Jeff Carter — He wouldn’t be on this team if his contract, which is worth $3.125 million, wasn’t of the 35-and-over variety, which means the Penguins are on the hook for his entire salary-cap hit, regardless of whether he’s in the NHL, the American Hockey League or his living room. They should try to limit his playing time and hope for an occasional flash of the skills that allowed him to thrive for many seasons.
Sidney Crosby — Someday, he’s going to realize that he’s in his mid-30s and shouldn’t be perhaps the best two-way player in the game anymore. Someday. The exact decade in which that will occur remains to be determined.
Lars Eller — His body of work, as well as his play during training camp, indicates that he will be a perfect fit in the middle of the No. 3 line. Eller won’t generate big offensive numbers, but is defensively responsible and a capable penalty-killer.
Jake Guentzel — It’s not clear yet whether Guentzel, who is coming off ankle surgery, will be cleared to play in the opener, but the Penguins want — and need — him to be back in uniform as quickly as possible. If he can stay healthy, he should be good for at least 40 goals.
Jansen Harkins — He wasn’t even in the organization a week ago, but has shown enough since the Penguins claimed him off waivers from Winnipeg last Monday to lock up a job. Although his sample size here is tiny, Harkins skates well and seems to have a pretty high compete level, qualities that serve him well in a bottom-six role.
Evgeni Malkin — While Malkin rarely is the force of nature he was so often earlier in his career, he and Crosby still give the Penguins a 1-2 punch at center that has few equals around the league. He remains capable of averaging a point-per-game and of occasionally pulling off feats that defy belief. Or explanation.
Matt Nieto — A somewhat under-the-radar addition — hey, it’s tough to compete with the likes of Erik Karlsson and Reilly Smith — Nieto should provide the kind of bottom-six upgrade the Pittsburgh Penguins were so eager to obtain during the offseason. A modest offensive threat, but also a relentless worker and good skater.
Drew O’Connor — No teammate can match the strides O’Connor has made since late last season. He was a borderline NHLer when the stretch drive began; just a few days into this camp, his roster spot seemed secure and, while he’s likely to draw bottom-six duty, O’Connor did not look out of place when cast in a more offensive role during the preseason.
Rickard Rakell — He moves so effortlessly between the left and right wings and the first and second lines that it can be easy to overlook just how important his adaptability is to the Penguins. A guy who can be counted on to score 20-plus goals, regardless of where and how he is used, should not be taken for granted.
Bryan Rust — The Pittsburgh Penguins need to have Rust rebound from an uncharacteristically lackluster season. Given his tenacity and the way he has meshed with Crosby in the past, betting against Rust to do that is no way to get wealthy.
Reilly Smith — Dubas’ first major acquisition, Smith looks like he’ll settle into Jason Zucker’s old spot on Malkin’s left side. He should be able to roughly match Zucker’s offensive output and is a tireless worker at both ends of the ice.
Ryan Graves — If Graves proves to be a good complement to Kris Letang — a role filled so effectively by Brian Dumoulin before his ankle injury a few years ago — the Pittsburgh Penguins will have two defense pairings that merit being deployed for about 25 minutes per game. His performance during the preseason suggests that’s a reasonable expectation, although he might be even better if he played as big as he is (6-foot-5, 220 pounds).
P.O Joseph — Remember a year ago, when Joseph was iffy to start the season in the NHL? Well, those days are a distant memory, because his career has been on an upward trajectory since then, and he still seems to have some untapped offensive potential that might allow him to rise above a No. 3 pairing in the future.
Erik Karlsson — While it’s not realistic to expect Karlsson to earn another Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman — there hasn’t been a repeat winner since Nicklas Lidstrom won three in a row from 2006-08 — he adds a volatile dimension to the Penguins’ offense and should play a prominent role in getting their underachieving power play to produce as expected.
Kris Letang — He’s coming off a challenging season off the ice and, at 36, should be approaching the twilight of his career, but his commitment to conditioning allows him to continue competing at a high level. He has purged some of the poor decision-making that detracted from his play in the past, and should benefit from having Karlsson to share some of the offensive burdens on the blue line.
Marcus Pettersson — Much like Graves with Letang, Pettersson provides a defensive presence that will allow his partner, Karlsson, to get involved in the offense when the opportunity arises. He has the added advantage of being able to communicate with Karlsson in Swedish, since that is the native tongue for both.
Chad Ruhwedel — There’s not a spectacular corpuscle in his body, but he’s proven to be capable of serving on a No. 3 pairing or as a depth defenseman who can turn in a solid performance even after a lengthy absence from the lineup.
Ryan Shea — Possibly the biggest — and most pleasant — surprise of the preseason. His signing as a free agent on July 1 went largely unnoticed outside the organization, but he was solid throughout camp and convinced management he’s worthy of getting an opportunity at this level after spending his first three pro seasons with Texas in the American Hockey League.
Tristan Jarry — If there is a single linchpin to the success the Penguins will have in 2023-24, it is the play of their No. 1 goaltender. Jarry has shown that he can take his game to an elite level, but he’ll have to prove he can keep it there — and stay healthy — for the Penguins to reach their lofty objectives.
Alex Nedeljkovic — So, which Alex Nedeljkovic did the Pittsburgh Penguins bring in as a free agent this summer? The one who dazzled when he broke into the NHL with Carolina, or the one who struggled in Detroit the past two seasons? Some quality work during the preseason should have given the Penguins reason for optimism.