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Five Pressing Questions As Penguins Enter Training Camp

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

The Pittsburgh Penguins face quite a few questions as they prepare for the start of on-ice work at training camp Thursday.

One of the most important, however, already has been answered.

Are the Penguins truly willing to go all-in to try to contend for the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup over the next few years?

Yes.

Emphatically, yes.

Any doubt about that disappeared when Ron Hextall re-signed all four of the Penguins’ most prominent free agents — Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell.

Which leads us to a look at some of the issues the Penguins will confront — and which may or may not be resolved — between now and the regular-season opener Oct. 13 against Arizona:

1. Well, was Hextall wise to keep the core intact?

There are obvious perils in investing so much salary-cap space and faith in Malkin, who is 36, and Letang, who is 35, when they have been part of a team that has lost five consecutive playoff series.

Whether a group with them as key components actually will be able to challenge for another championship might not — heck, probably will not — be known until next spring, but this camp could provide some early evidence about where Hextall’s gamble is headed.

Malkin will be particularly interesting to watch, since he has had some significant injuries in recent seasons — remember, he was sidelined for the first half of 2021-22 while recovering from major knee surgery — and is the second-oldest member (behind only Jeff Carter) on one of the NHL’s oldest teams.

2. What will the defense pairings look like?

Unless Brian Dumoulin, who is coming off a decidedly subpar season, has a complete breakdown, he figures to work alongside Letang, because they have had an effective partnership for a number of years.

Beyond that, little seems settled.

Two defensemen who projected onto the top two pairings, Mike Matheson and John Marino, have been traded, with their spots on the depth chart claimed by Jeff Petry and Ty Smith.

Petry seems destined for the No. 2 pair, while Smith — the only one among the nine defensemen expected to compete for spots on the regular-season roster who doesn’t need waivers to go to Wilkes-Barre — will be under more pressure to show his worth during the preseason.

Although the Penguins prefer to match a right-handed defenseman with a lefty, several of the latter — Jan Rutta, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman — have experience on their off-side, so Mike Sullivan and his staff might have options beyond the obvious ones.

3. Can a young forward steal a roster spot?

Fourteen veteran forwards with one-way contracts are scheduled to be at camp, which is one more than the Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to carry on their Opening Night roster.

Barring a spate of injuries, that will make it tough for any of the organization’s younger centers and wingers to start the season in the NHL.

Still, during the just-concluded rookie camp, Sam Poulin and Corey Andonovski looked capable of fitting in at this level, and Nathan Legare’s effective agitating during a game against Boston prospects last Saturday underscored a solid showing at the camp.

Chances are that all three will be in Wilkes-Barre when the regular season gets underway, but all have the potential to challenge for a roster spot. Or, at the very least, a call-up as the season progresses.

And, while Drew O’Connor didn’t take part in rookie camp, he’s a viable candidate, too, although being exempt from waivers won’t work in his favor.

4. Will Kasperi Kapanen get his game in order?

The Penguins surprised some observers by declining to cut ties with Kapanen when he was a restricted free agent this summer, and bringing him back with the same cap hit he had on the previous contract.

The elements that prompted Jim Rutherford to draft him in the first round in 2014, including excellent skating and a quick release on his shot, are still there, but haven’t added up to much production during the two seasons since he was brought back from Toronto.

Still, if Kapanen rewards the confidence team officials showed by re-signing him, it could give the Pittsburgh Penguins seven forwards capable of playing on the top two lines. That would allow Hextall to trade a quality winger or, at the very least, make it possible for the Penguins to get through a lost-time injury to a top-six winger with minimal damage.

But if some of his bad habits — like carrying the puck across the blue line, then curling toward the boards — persist, it’s hard to see how he would be anything but a drag on this team.

5. Who replaces Brian Boyle and Zach Aston-Reese on the penalty-kill?

The Penguins had the best penalty-killing unit in the league for much of last season, but that was before Teddy Blueger got a broken jaw, Zach Aston-Reese was traded, Brock McGinn was injured and Brian Boyle began to wear down.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ultimately slid to third in the league in the regular-season rankings, then yielded six goals in 19 shorthanded situations during their Round 1 playoff loss to the New York Rangers.

Blueger and McGinn are back, as is Carter, but the coaches will have to settle on at least one more forward to get regular work when the Penguins are down a man. Rust can handle that duty, but the coaches might be reluctant to risk injury to him if it isn’t necessary.

Josh Archibald, signed as a free agent, should get a long look for that spot, and Kapanen could receive an audition if his game appears to be in order.

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Vince Gori
Vince Gori
7 days ago

Good insight Dave. Think it is time to try Kapanen on the PK. It’s a high energy situation that may keep him motivates and use his skills. Still a logjam on defense that needs a trade or two to rectify. Finally nice to see the feeder program has a pulse that is not just DOC or Zohorna. Some of those you named show potential. What about Pustinen? Problem is they tend to throw callous of the third or fourth line and don’t place them where they should.

Pete
Pete
7 days ago

Malkin and Carter. Over or under 60 games played?
Sure wish we had Erod to fill in.
Lets Go Pens!!

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 days ago
Reply to  Pete

As of right now, Poehling and Poulin would be the 2 to fill in for possible injuries with O’Connor in the mix as a possiblility because he had some time at center last season. I wouldn’t worry about a possible injury Malkin is past his major injury and Carter has been reasonably healthy in his time with the Penguins. Just because they are on the older side it doesn’t mean they are automatically injured because hockey is physical and younger players can be injured just as easily. Also, they have enough depth at all positions if it does happen.

Dean
Dean
7 days ago
Reply to  Pete

can we give it a rest?

Ray
Ray
7 days ago

Kapanen was an excellent penalty killer with the Leafs. But Sullivan never considered using him there. That’s a question that needs asked. Why not??

Last edited 7 days ago by Ray
Dan Kingerski
Admin
7 days ago
Reply to  Ray

He did consider it and worked with him in the last preseason. I’m not sure I’ve heard him called an “excellent” penalty killer before.

Jccvv7
Jccvv7
7 days ago

Hey Dan good day! So any thoughts on Zohorna or pohlieng cracking the bottom 6? Would like to hear your thoughts on them? Ty