You’re reading another weekend edition of THN.com’s Burning Questions files, an ongoing series in which we ask three important questions about every NHL team. In today’s file, we’ve got Three Burning Questions about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE PENGUINS IN 2022-23:
1. How much longer does the Pens’ aging core have as a playoff-worthy group? It’s never advisable to suggest talents like those of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are going to sag and go weakly into the night, but all three Penguins superstars are now either 35 or 36 years old, and as we all know, Father Time is, eventually, not kind. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan is fortunate to have younger elite forwards in Jake Guentzel (27), Rickard Rakell (29), and Bryan Rust (30), the reality in Pittsburgh is this is an older team (that includes 37-year-old Jeff Carter and 34-year-old defenseman/new acquisition Jeff Petry), and a new generation of young stars have not appeared on the horizon for them.
The Penguins did win their division two years ago, but last year, they finished third in the Metropolitan Division, and they haven’t made it out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the past four years. Pittsburgh GM Ron Hextall recommitted to Malkin and Letang with contract extensions this summer, and Crosby is signed for another three years, but it’s fair to presume they’ll have a hard time maintaining their superstar status as they move towards their forties. With the Metro getting only more competitive this summer, the Pens could find themselves missing the post-season altogether for the first time since 2005-06. And if that happens, Hextall’s extensions for his superstars may be rightfully called into question.
2. Can Pittsburgh’s goaltending tandem of starter Tristan Jarry and backup Casey DeSmith lead the way for the Pens, not only in the regular season, but the playoffs as well? The duo of the 27-year-old Jarry and the 31-year-old DeSmith has been in place in Pittsburgh for a few years now, but there have been significant potholes in the road to Cup glory, and until they prove they can steal games for the Pens when it really counts, Jarry and DeSmith are going to be looked at with skepticism.
Jarry made a career-high 58 appearances last season, while DeSmith appeared in 26 games. Neither one was healthy by the time the playoffs arrived, and goaltending health has to be a concern for Penguins brass. As we’ve noted elsewhere, it’s not as if there are readily apparent candidates for whom Hextall could swing a trade, and the Pens are salary-capped-out anyhow. Their defense corps isn’t filled with lockdown D-men, so Jarry and DeSmith are going to have their work cut out for them. If they’re not up to the task, or their body fails them, it could be calamitous for the Penguins’ regular-season, let alone the playoffs.
3. Will the Penguins’ defense corps prove to be their achilles’ heel? The acquisition of Petry gives the Pens five defensemen (in their top-eight) who are at least 31 years old. Having their experience is a positive, but two of them missed 10 games or more last season, and all but two of them – 2023 UFA Brian Dumolin and 2023 restricted free agent Ty Smith – are locked up for at least the next two years. That could prove to be a problem if there’s no real growth in the upper cap ceiling, as there are few GMs prepared to trade for a thirty-something D-man who has an annual salary between $2.75 and $6.25 million.
The Penguins are going to continue to be driven by their forward group, but they need their blueliners to give the offense a chance to win games for them. If that doesn’t happen, Jarry and DeSmith will be let down, and so will Pittsburgh’s devoted fan base.