Before every NHL season, you examine all the teams, and there are teams that you feel good about, and there are teams that you don’t feel all so good about. And I have to say, everybody: I’m kind of worried about the Pittsburgh Penguins this year.
In some ways, I probably should feel good about the Pens. They have two of the game’s best players. They’re coming off a first-place finish in their division. They employ two very capable forward lines and a solid-enough top pairing on defense. Unfortunately, all the aforementioned feel-good-abouts have not led them to a single playoff series win in the past three seasons.
And as training camp approaches, their two best talents, injured centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will not be available to them as the regular season kicks off, and in an improving Metropolitan division, that absence alone could gravely injure the Penguins. The Pens are one of seven teams Metro teams who could, under ideal circumstances, qualify for the playoffs, then hope they get on a roll to avenge last season’s dismal first-round defeat at the hands of the New York Islanders.
But that’s just it – there are seven potential playoff-threats in the Metro, with only Columbus all but assured to dwell at the bottom of the division’s standings. Yes, the New Jersey Devils may be a longer shot to take one of the four available playoff spots, but if Dougie Hamilton helps them and their group of youngsters flourish, there’s a possibility the and all the others – the Washington Capitals; the New York Rangers; and the Isles; the Philadelphia Flyers; and the Carolina Hurricanes – . That means seven teams are battling for a post-season berth. That leaves very little room for error.
And that’s the issue the Penguins have right now. Crosby and Malkin both needed surgery this off-season: Malkin, on his knee; Crosby, on his wrist. Depending on how much time it will take Malkin and Crosby to return to action, the Pens’ depth down the middle will be severely tested.
Head coach Mike Sullivan knows the gigantic drop in production from the absence of Crosby and Malkin is not going to be easily remedied. The acquisition of Jeff Carter last season produced good numbers on offense, and Sullivan will turn to him to play bigger minutes, but others will need to step up and attempt to fill a portion of the shoes Crosby and Malkin wear for this team every season.
Not having Malkin and Crosby around for two-to-four weeks might create just enough of an opening for one of the Penguins’ adversaries to sneak through and punch their playoff ticket at Pittsburgh’s expense.
Or here’s another factor that could prove to be their downfall this season, as it was last year: goaltending. Yes, you can say it was possibly only a one-time meltdown by starter Tristan Jarry when he flamed out spectacularly against the Isles in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.
But what if it isn’t? With due respect to backup Casey DeSmith, if Jarry wobbles again to start the 2021-22 campaign, DeSmith can’t be depended on to play a full, 50-60-game schedule. (Which is not to say he can’t do it; rather, that he has yet to prove he can.)
And if their goaltending does turn out to have some rot in it, it’s not like Pittsburgh can easily find a replacement. Most teams are now choosing to go with more of a tandem, 50/50 games-played or 60/40 GP approach to their netminding; resultantly, there will be fewer options to acquire and insert right away. Even if they could find a team willing to send them a capable goalie, they don’t have the salary cap space to make it work. Per CapFriendly.com, Pens GM Ron Hextall has only $121,795 to work with at the moment, effectively taking them out of adding any talent of consequence. (Also, yes, yes I was aware the Penguins will accrue cap space the longer Crosby and Malkin are unable to play. That’s not a situation they should be hopeful for.)
The Penguins’ defense corps is far from the best the NHL has to offer, but they performed well in front of Jarry last year, and in a contract season for Letang – maybe the last big one for the 37-year-old – the Pens might actually develop into a top-10 blueline group. But that’s a very big ‘if’, and nobody should expect Pittsburgh to earn a playoff spot this year with its defense leading the way.
They need to be the 196-goal club they were in 56 games last year. They are likely to struggle to meet or surpass that number if Crosby and Malkin get back quickly and stay healthy for the rest of the season.
The longer their top two centers are gone, the more I worry about the Penguins. Is Pittsburgh a boom-or-bust team? In some ways, yes; another hard-on-the-eyes playoff series loss, and maybe Malkin decides he wants to play for another team when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. That would be the wheels falling-off scenario, but that’s not as far-fetched as it may appear.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong here, and the Penguins will win the division again and finally get over their first-round woeful recent history. If anyone can almost singlehandedly put a team on his shoulders, it’s Crosby. But he’s now 34 years old, and all that hard-nosed hockey has taken a toll on his body.
I worry about him, and I worry about the 35-year-old Malkin. Just like I worry about Pittsburgh this year. Time flies when you’re having fun, and the years flew by in Steeltown thanks to fun-makers like Crosby and Malkin. But the end never comes as far away as you want it to come.
Sometimes, the end is closer than you think. And this time around, the Penguins may find themselves at a competitive crossroads.