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Does Karlsson Make the Penguins a Stanley Cup Contender?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a much better team than just a few months ago.

After the 2022-23 regular season ended not with a hard-fought playoff loss but with a regular season whimper, the team direly needed change far exceeding the mere aging patchwork of veterans that connected the recent versions of the Penguins roster.

The Penguins got that 10,000-watt electrical jolt after president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas acquired Erik Karlsson. The reigning Norris Trophy winner had 101 points last season, leading all defensemen and considerably more than any Penguins scorer.

The Penguins now have the most dynamic blue line in the NHL, though not necessarily the best.

The Penguins also have a vastly improved bottom-six forward crew with third-line center Lars Eller after Dubas buttressed the crew with speedy depth players. The third and fourth lines will be some combination of Noel Acciari, Drew O’Connor, Matt Nieto, Alex Nylander, Rem Pitlick, Jeff Carter, and others.

Affordable speed and responsibility were obviously the primary drivers in the free agent signings and who stuck around.

But are the Penguins Stanley Cup contenders after those changes?

That answer hinges on a grand slam of variables, including how the team competes with the younger generation of Eastern Conference powers, especially those in the Metro Division.

Penguins Defense, Puck Possession

As much as anyone can know about the coming NHL season from the dog days of summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a chance to be special if–and there are a few supersized IFs–Dubas’s math is correct, and Karlsson and Kris Letang can largely remain healthy.

Dubas is banking on the Penguins’ top two defensive pairings being so good with the puck that the Penguins’ puck possession numbers climb into the elite stratosphere.

Last season, the puck-hog Carolina Hurricanes had a league-best 59% shot-attempt ratio (Corsi) and a 55% goals-for ratio. The Penguins were ninth with a 52% shot-attempt ratio but one of just three teams with a Corsi over 51% and a goals-for ratio under 50% (49%).

By Dubas’s math, the Penguins should have the puck … a lot. Possession can create compound interest as four lines begin to attack.

The Penguins, as constructed, should be an offensively oriented team that applies pressure for the length of the ice with speed and tenacity. They should create significantly more offensive chances and significantly more than they yield.

That’s the plan, but some plot holes could ruin the movie.

Penguins Injuries

Over the last five seasons, both Letang and Karlsson have missed significant time in more seasons than they have not.

Should one or both suffer an injury, which is a statistical probability based on recent history, the right side of the Penguins’ blue line would rely on Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman. Both are fine depth defenders, but asking them to carry the same burdens placed on Karlsson and Letang might be just a bit more than problematic.

Injuries to goalie Tristan Jarry also handcuffed the Penguins last season.

Can both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy for most of the regular season again? Crosby turned 36 this week, and Malkin turned 37. Someday, they will stop defying their birth certificates.

Penguins Goaltending

Another potential problem is goaltending. Dubas shipped Casey DeSmith to the Montreal Canadiens as part of the three-team deal to get Karlsson. The Penguins’ goaltending depth is now a workable three goalies with NHL experience and top goalie prospect Joel Blomqvist committing to play in North America this coming season.

Despite Penguins’ fans getting frustrated with Jarry’s health and inconsistency last season, he remains one of the better starting goalies in the league … when he’s healthy.

Health will be a big deal for Jarry, whose back issues didn’t allow him to settle in for long periods last season. The team obviously feels confident he and the trainers can solve the problem.

Behind Jarry is Alex Nedeljkovic, whom the goalie-hungry Detroit Red Wings demoted to the AHL for several months last season. He played only 15 NHL games and 26 in the AHL. The 27-year-old posted a .932 save percentage in his rookie year with Carolina but was traded and struggled mightily in two seasons with the Red Wings organization.

His save percentage in the NHL last season was .895.

Third goalie Magnus Hellberg is well suited for a third goalie role but is a 32-year-old journeyman who has played more games in the KHL and AHL than the NHL. He, too, played for the Red Wings last season. In 17 games, his NHL save percentage was only .885.

So, there’s a lot of pressure on Jarry’s back, literally and figuratively.

Stanley Cup Contenders?

If the season goes according to plan, yes, the Penguins could well be in the Eastern Conference conversation. If healthy, they could compete with Carolina, New Jersey, and the New York Rangers.

However, there’s another factor that has been overlooked: secondary scoring.

Even if the Penguins remain healthy, Jarry returns to premier form, Karlsson and Letang are the long-lost siblings who make each other better, and coach Mike Sullivan’s forecheck schemes bedevil opponents, where will the offense come from in the bottom six?

Lars Eller is a stout third-line center but a little light on the score sheet. The same goes for Acciari, O’Connor, Nieto, Vinnie Hinostroza, and the gaggle of forwards competing for an NHL sweater.

The great hope of Penguins fans, Alex Nylander, had two points (1-1-2) in nine NHL games last season. External expectations for Nylander are well out of line, and barring a Lazarus-like return of 38-year-old Jeff Carter, the offensive weight will fall squarely and exclusively on the Penguins’ stars at the top of the lineup.

The Penguins could contend for the Stanley Cup or implode in a catastrophic fashion. Both scenarios have significant odds of occurring. Every season there are a handful of teams who dunk on hockey analysts. Some do it by exceeding expectations, and some by failing to meet projections.

It seems the Penguins will be one of those teams who defy analysts, but it’s hard to know on which side they fall. There will be no middle this season.

The Penguins and fans are in for a wild ride. They have a much better team and chance than they did four months ago, but a few gambles could roll snake eyes.

Of course, if it all goes well, we could have a Pittsburgh vs. Toronto Eastern Conference Final. Perhaps that will be too tempting a proposition for the hockey gods to pass up.