Welcome to the Five-Year Plan. In this summer exercise, we forecast the rosters for all 31 current NHL teams for the 2023-24 season. Are we bound for folly? Sure, but the point of the exercise is to give some sense of where an organization is heading based on current long-term contracts and the prospects they have in the system.
Some ground rules: No trades will be made and no future draft picks will be included – so you won’t see the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield on any roster, even though they will certainly be NHL stars in 2023-24. All current contracts are honored and most restricted free agents are projected to stay with their teams, unless it is determined the player will lose his spot or move on in the future. Some future unrestricted free agents will be kept on if the players are deemed integral and likely to re-sign. The Seattle expansion draft is not considered. With all that established, let’s take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh's current lack of depth is a problem, that's for sure. Heck, even Malkin could be gone after his contract ends in 2022 at the age of 35. Assuming Crosby is still effective at 36, he can still play a pivotal role and line up with one of the best wingers he has ever skated with in Guentzel. Guentzel will be a 29-year-old UFA after the 2023-24 season but you can imagine that he'll still have several solid years of hockey left in him.
Speaking of Malkin, trade rumors have surrounded the star for years now. He hasn't played a full 82-game season in over a decade, and has reached the 70-game plateau just once since the 2012-13 lockout. Injuries are a concern, but you can always rely on him if he's healthy – which is the troubling part. What will he ask for when his deal runs out at 35? The Pens could still get a lot out of a Malkin trade, but the longer the team waits, the less likely they'll get full value.
The top forward prospect at the moment is Poulin, and while his offensive numbers in the QMJHL aren't incredible, he does play an all-around game that makes him a good third player on a line. But after that, the talent pool in the farm system is barren, with many projecting to be bottom-six players. Hallander, for example, is a promising young talent with tremendous work ethic, but he doesn't have the numbers to suggest he'll bust past the third line. Pittsburgh could afford to miss the playoffs for a year or two to help replenish the system.
Of note, Galchenyuk will be a UFA in 2021, but this is his best opportunity to be a contributor. Does he stay? We're going with yes, because there's a good chance for Galchenyuk to meet his potential with a good supporting cast of stars around him.
Pittsburgh's defense is an issue today, and unless someone steps up to the mantle, that could remain the case a few years down the line. Letang will be 36 in five years and still needs to negotiate a new contract for 2022-23. Letang does have a long timeline of injuries, so how will the minute-muncher's body hold up by then? Dumoulin and Pettersson will be the other veterans who can fill out the lineup and help the young guys.
The young guys, of course, will be counted on to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Joseph was a key part of the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Arizona for Galchenyuk and others and is only a few years of AHL hockey away from playing a key role in Pittsburgh thanks to his all-around skill set. Addison, a strong playmaker with back-to-back 65-point seasons in the WHL, will be the team's future power-play quarterback, but he'll need to work on being more consistent in his own zone. Marino's true potential is still unknown, but he's very strong in his own zone and is set to turn pro this season after rounding out his game with Harvard over the past three years.
Murray has had some bumps along the way, but it's hard to imagine the Penguins finding an upgrade over the next few years other than to find him some more competent defensemen. Murray will be an RFA at the end of 2019-20 but with no challenger to the throne right now, the Pens will look to keep him for at least the next five seasons. With the Tristan Jarry experiment expected to expire within the next few years, Larmi does offer a good backup option. Larmi doesn't have ideal NHL size at 6-feet, but his numbers on a bad Finnish league team were impressive and the Penguins may have found a nice diamond in the rough in him.
This is a team where you have to accept the fact that the lineup will look very different in five years. Each position will carry key members of the current lineup, but the next generation of Penguins depth doesn't look promising right now. The Penguins have shipped out four draft picks over the next three years (including a second-round pick in 2020), so look for GM Jim Rutherford to move assets to replenish the farm.
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