Entering this past offseason, it appeared that the Penguins’ front office run by Ron Hextall and Brian Burke had an impossible task of keeping all of their pending free agents. While they had to let a few go, Pittsburgh was able to retain almost everybody, including franchise icons Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on discounted cap hits. A few seasons in a row of playoff disappointment means that running it back with a similar roster has more than a few skeptics. But it has never been the fault of the veterans for the team’s recent demise.
Offseason additions: D Jeff Petry, D Jan Rutta, D Ty Smith, F Ryan Poehling, F Josh Archibald.
Offseason subtractions: F Evan Rodrigues, D Mike Matheson, D John Marino, F Brian Boyle, G Louis Domingue.
As long as Sidney Crosby is in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be going for the Stanley Cup. He was still dominant in his age-34 season, although Crosby was not nominated for the Hart Trophy for just the second time since concussions nearly ended his career prematurely. Playing in 69 games, he scored 31 goals with 84 points. Crosby’s defense has gradually improved as he has aged, and he had a ridiculous 62.3 GF% this season. After three consecutive disappointing playoff series, it was huge for Crosby to have ten points in six postseason games. The same could be said for Jake Guentzel, who scored eight times in seven games versus the Rangers. In the regular season, Guentzel scored 40 goals for the second time, while setting a new career-high in points, with 84. The big deadline grab for the Penguins was Rickard Rakell, who only got into two playoff games. He was a rental, but Pittsburgh gave him a six-year, $30 million extension in the offseason. In 19 regular season games after the trade from Anaheim, Rakell had 13 points while mostly playing with Crosby.
The injury concerns are very, very real for Evgeni Malkin. He hasn’t played in every game in a season since 2008-09, and only has 70 games played in two seasons since then. Malkin was once again limited to just 41 games last year, and he is not as much of a physical player anymore, despite his haunting stature. While he did produce, with 20 goals and 22 assists, Malkin had just a 44.8 goals for percentage at even strength. Part of the reason why the Penguins brought in Rakell was because it allowed Bryan Rust to drop down to Malkin’s line. While he played in only 60 games, Rust was amazing, scoring 24 goals with 58 points. It was a new career-high for him, although just like everybody on the team, Rust struggled with injuries. He came through big in the postseason, with eight points in seven games. Pittsburgh signed Danton Heinen for depth last year, but he earned his way into middle-six minutes. Heinen scored 18 goals with 15 assists while only missing six games. He also had a ridiculous 58.9 xGF% at even strength. The only regular forward who was higher than him was actually Dominik Simon, who was a part of the Rakell trade.
The lackluster play of Jason Zucker continued in 2021-22, as the veteran winger only played in 41 games. When he did play, Zucker didn’t produce, with eight goals and nine assists. Acquired from Minnesota in 2019-20, they hope was for Zucker to play with Crosby and score 30 goals, like he did in 2017-18. He hasn’t done either in Pittsburgh. In 94 games, he has 23 goals with 47 points. Instead of playing with Malkin or Crosby, he mostly played with Jeff Carter on the third line. Carter went on a scoring heater after being acquired in 2020-21. Even in his age-37 season with his shooting percentage declining, he was much more productive than expected. Carter scored 19 goals with 45 points, while being one of five forward to play in at least 75 games. It was also Carter’s most goals and assists since 2016-17. The Penguins have the right to be frustrated with Kasperi Kapanen, who despite good analytical and defensive numbers, didn’t produce a ton last year. Kapanen had 30 points in 40 games in 2020-21, but had just 32 in 79 games last season. He only matched his goal total of 11. The talent is there, but Kapanen hasn’t proved that he is better than the third line.
A first-round pick by the Canadiens in 2017, Ryan Poehling comes to the Pens after an underwhelming 2021-22 season. Playing in 57 games for Montreal, he scored nine goals with eight assists. Pittsburgh utilized a complete shutdown fourth line, although they traded away Zach Aston-Reese, one of the line’s premier members. The center is still Teddy Blueger, who had an xGA/60 of two, and a GA/60 of 1.72. He also had a career-high 28 points. Brock McGinn scored 12 goals in 64 games last year, his most since 2017-18. The former Hurricane had 94 hits with 50 blocked shots, the latter tied with Carter for most among team forwards. An option instead of Poehling is Drew O’Connor, a six-foot-three, undrafted winger who had five points in 22 games last season. O’Connor was effective in the AHL, with 32 points in 33 games. Veteran Josh Archibald came back from myocarditis and played in eight games for the Oilers last season. In 52 games the season before, he scored seven goals with 192 hits.
In his age-34 season, Kris Letang set a new career-high in points, with 68. While his defense isn’t fantastic, Letang is still a top-pairing defender. He finished seventh in Norris voting, and the Penguins have him at a cap hit of just $6.1 million. Unfortunately, that is for the next six seasons. Pittsburgh got a healthy season out of Brian Dumoulin… until he only could play in one playoff game. He’s been the rock of the Penguins’ defense when he’s played, supporting Letang defensively.
Jeff Petry had 42 points in 55 games in 2020-21. But as the Canadiens fell off a cliff, so did he. Petry had just 27 points in 68 games, leading to an offseason trade. Still, Petry led the Habs’ defense in xGF% and blocked 117 shots with 140 hits. He will be paired with the lanky Marcus Pettersson, who has seen his role be diminished in each of the past two seasons. He had 19 points in 72 games last season while averaging under 16 minutes of ice time a game. He will again be a second-pairing defender, so the team needs more out of him.
The team shipped out John Marino to New Jersey to accommodate Petry, and brought in promising undersized defender Ty Smith. He had 20 points in 66 games for the Devils last year, but really struggled in his own end. Smith was the only regular Devils’ defender with an xGF% under 50, and his was just under forty-seven. Pittsburgh signed Jan Rutta from Tampa Bay, who reaped the benefits of playing with Victor Hedman. Rutta had 18 points last year, his most since his rookie season of 2017-18. He is a big guy with a ton of playoff experience, which naturally got him a three-year contract in the offseason. Various injuries led to Chad Ruhwedel playing in a career-high 78 games in 2021-22. Ruhwedel is entering his seventh season as a depth defender for the team, signing five different contracts in the process. He had an extraordinary xGF% of 57.9 this past season.
Goaltending was once again the downfall of the Penguins in the playoffs, as they had to watch third goalie Louis Domingue play in most of their games. Tristan Jarry returned only for game seven, where he was still clearly hurt. While he struggled the season before, Jarry was great in the 2021-22 regular season. He had a .919 save percentage with a 2.42 GAA, plus a positive goals saved above expected. Backup Casey DeSmith was roughly average in that stat, as he played in 26 games. DeSmith had a .914 save percentage and a 2.79 GAA.
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Rickard Rakell
Danton Heinen – Evgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker – Jeff Carter – Kasperi Kapanen
Ryan Poehling – Teddy Blueger – Brock McGinn
Scratched: Drew O’Connor, Josh Archibald
Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson – Jeff Petry
Ty Smith – Jan Rutta
Scratched: Chad Ruhwedel