Jake Guenzel would be close. Tristan Jarry is in the same category. They are players who the Pittsburgh Penguins would almost assuredly not be able to adequately replace if GM Ron Hextall shipped them away via the NHL trade market.
Are there any true untouchables besides Sidney Crosby?
Crosby was wholesale snubbed in Hart Trophy voting this season despite 84 points (31-53-84), but he carried the team for the bulk of the season. At 34, he remains the heart, soul, and face of the franchise, in addition to its best player.
At PHN, we’ve been adjusting to the Hextall regime. In past years, neon signs were pointing where the team was headed. Even the GM told us who he wanted, who he really really wanted. Sometimes, we got conflicting reports from different factions in the hockey ops department, but there was always discussion and perceived movement.
Things are a little different now, so we’re left to read tea leaves, interpret actions, and most of all, non-actions. In this manner, PHN is probably well-positioned for this coverage, given our wealth of league contacts and more experience than we’d like to admit. Even so, we often disagree amongst ourselves on what we see.
Dave Molinari has less than subtlety hinted the Penguins’ best route is a semi-tear down with a good bit of losing to earn high draft picks.
I believe the right tweaks could make the Penguins a formidable team for another few years and provide the basis to avoid an ugly Generation Next rebuild.
Of course, maybe I’m just too old to watch the next Aleksey Morozov float around the perimeter or get excited to cover a fourth-rounder who might not be terrible. The most recent of those is Lukas Svejkovsky, the diminutive winger taken in the 2020 NHL Draft. Silky mitts. Zippy skating. Nose for the net. Not much bigger than my grandson.
In 2024 perhaps he’ll be ready. Or in Wheeling. You can never tell. But I much prefer covering NHL hockey and the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lineup
After Crosby, and probably Guentzel and Jarry, the rest of the Penguins lineup can be replaced, upgraded, or otherwise filled with others. If less expensive or more talented options are available, there isn’t anyone else who should be considered safe.
Jeff Carter, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino are three such examples.
In May, Sidney Crosby confirmed he would play three more years. And then…? We’ll see. He laughed heartily when told that Kris Letang wants to play for five or more years.
“He said that? That seems about right,” Crosby laughed.
I strongly think the Penguins are better with Kris Letang. There aren’t any equal replacements. We’ve circled Jeff Petry and Tyson Barrie on the NHL trade block. Both are a step back, but there are financial limits to re-signing a 35-year-old defenseman, and both potential trade acquisitions would add significant salary cap savings to allocate elsewhere.
Maybe Letang will play for five more years in Pittsburgh. Maybe not. But that wouldn’t change the immutable fact that not even he would be untouchable in the coming years. He will eventually begin to slip; age is undefeated.
And he could be replaced in the immediate, perhaps with multiple upgrades among the Penguins defensemen.
Maybe someday, UNICEF will get involved in owning hockey teams, but until then, it’s a business. Any decision on re-signing Letang or Evgeni Malkin will be run through the business filter. Loyalty doesn’t win games, but it may count for a little extra latitude in negotiations.
It’s been a year since the pair were announced as top priorities. A year is a long time. Here we are, 18 days from the start of free agency, and the next bit of good news in negotiations will be the first.
Let this be a stark reminder. No one, except Sidney Crosby, is truly untouchable.
The Pittsburgh Penguins must get better, either via the long way around by losing and getting high picks or by finding ways to upgrade their current team. For some reason, Penguins fans feel entitled not only to a playoff appearance but to four playoff series wins each season, and Round One losses are driving fans away.
Fans in Detroit, Ottawa, and Buffalo send their thoughts and prayers.