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Pittsburgh Penguins Season Preview 2022-23: The core searches for a fourth Stanley Cup

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - "I keep telling everyone they should move on and grow…some do…but not us." – Captain Steve Rogers

Some teams, move on, hit the reset button, and blow up their core, but not the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This summer was distinctively not one of change, but it very well could have been. Both franchise cornerstones, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were unrestricted free agents. So was winger Bryan Rust.

There was a real chance that the Penguins could've looked very different when camp opened in mid-September.

Instead, the team believed in its main players and that the championship window remains open.

Rust was the first to re-sign. Then trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rakell was re-upped.

Next was Letang.

While it took until the 11th hour, Evgeni Malkin put pen to paper and the band was officially back together for another shot at taking a ride to Lord Stanley's castle.

Can the Penguins win a fourth Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era?

Let's dive in.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to open up their 2022-23 season against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 13 at PPG Paints Arena.

By: Patrick Damp

As stated above the Penguins once again come into the season with a fairly deep forward group.

Headed by a first line that will likely include Rakell, Crosby, and Guentzel, a trio that scored a combined 91 goals last season, the Penguins' top six will not be short on goals.

The second line will likely feature the trio of Rust, Malkin, and Jason Zucker.

Therein lies the question mark – can Zucker stay healthy? He has only played a total of 91 regular season games for the Penguins over three seasons since he was acquired from Minnesota. While his speed is a key factor in his game, health will be crucial.

"I'm definitely back to normal," Zucker told The Athletic. "I feel like I can skate again. My whole game stems from my skating. If I'm relying on my hands too much, that's trouble. I need to rely on my legs. If I can skate, typically my game follows. Last year, I was just trying to figure out how to skate again because of all of these injuries. It's nice to feel like myself again."

In those limited moments, Zucker has been productive, scoring 47 points.

Rust is back with the Penguins after he was expected to wade into the free agency pool the past summer.

The 30-year-old forward had a career-best in points, scoring 58 in 60 games, including a career-high 34 assists.

It was expected that Rust would test the market, given the premium NHL general managers put on goal-scoring, but ultimately, he signed a 6-year, $30.75 million extension with the club.

"This is a number that we're really happy with," Rust said back in May. "I'm very happy with it. And I think if that helps sign some other guys that would like to be here and would like a chance to win with this team, I think that's awesome."

The Penguins' forward group remains mostly unchanged into this year, with only a few editions on the margins.

The third line will once again feature Jeff Carter in the middle with Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen on the wing.

Kapanen is once again going to be put under the microscope as an X-factor for this team's success or failure.

He hasn't performed the way the Penguins have hoped since they re-acquired him from the Toronto Maple Leafs in August 2020.

"I am looking back to the good years and the good times I've had in my career now," he told The Athletic's Josh Yohe. "Coming to the rink with a smile on your face. That kind of stuff. Last year, it was just a struggle for me. So, I'm taking a more positive approach now. I want to make a difference in a good way this season."

The one new addition to the Penguins' forward group is more of a return.

Josh Archibald is back with the organization after he signed a one-year, $900,000 contract in July.

The Penguins drafted Archibald in the sixth round in 2011 and he spent time with the Penguins, Arizona Coyotes, and Edmonton Oilers.

Similar to running it back with the core of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang – bringing back this forward group was certainly not the worst idea considering they finished in the top half of the league last season, scoring 269 goals, good for 11th in the NHL.

By: Garrett Behanna

This is a unit that has, perhaps, seen the most drastic changes in terms of roster construction. As mentioned above, Kris Letang signed a new, six-year contract extension, one with a cap hit of $6.1 million. A Penguin for life? You bet. Even at 35, Letang will be looked at as the anchor of this defensive unit. Letang had the best statistical season of his career last year, registering 10 goals and 58 assists while playing an average of 26 minutes per game. 

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Five
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 11: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal against the New York Rangers in Game Five of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 2022 in New York City. Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The ink wasn't dry on the paper before Letang professed his gratitude to the only team he's ever played for.

"The Penguins gave me my chance," said Letang, who was a third-round pick (No. 62 overall) by the franchise in 2005. "They took care of me like a son. They always treated me like one of their own. When you have that feeling, sometimes it's just natural. You want to finish there. The memories that we built as a team, it's just incredible that I have a chance to stay with that team," Letang said via the Tribune-Review.

How long could Letang, known for his intense fitness regimen, realistically play professional hockey?

 "For the time I put in my training, the way I do my (conditioning) off the ice, in my mind, I was going to play at that level until I was 40, 41, 42. Maybe even more. The passion is there. It's not only about security. It's more about the fact I invested in that, and that's what I wanted."

The Penguins' defense goes as No. 58 goes.

Brian Dumoulin, Letang's long-time partner, will once again be slotted alongside the French-Canadian. Dumoulin's stay-at-home style meshes well with Letang's aggressiveness on the blue line. However, Dumoulin enters 2022-23 in the final year of his contract, giving him a cap hit of $4.1 million. Dumoulin, never the flashiest player on the backend, looked noticeably slower throughout last season. Could he be playing his final season in a Penguins sweater? That's a wait-and-see question to find the answer.

The second pair brings with it one of the new faces the Penguins brought in over the summer. The lanky Swede, Marcus Pettersson, ever at the center of trade rumors due to his cap hit, was not traded. He will help round out the top four with a newcomer, veteran defenseman, Jeff Petry.

Petry arrives by way of the Montreal Canadiens. And while he was getting acclimated to his new, black-and-gold surroundings, he noticed something was different in Pittsburgh than in Montreal.

"Obviously, going into a season, I think everybody has one goal," Petry said. "But I've noticed the standard here, just walking in, is higher. It's not just to have a good regular season, it's not just to make the playoffs. They put a high standard up to win the Stanley Cup. That's exciting for a guy like myself who's come close but has never won it."

Mike Sullivan has envisioned Pettersson and Petry as a solid tandem that will complement one another.

"Marcus is a mobile guy, he's got a long reach, makes good outlet passes, has the ability to help us on the offense," Sullivan said. "Jeff is a guy that is an elite defenseman. He has the ability to help us on both sides of the puck. Jeff is big and strong. He's going to help us at our net front [on] the defensive side. But we're not compromising anything from a transition standpoint or a skill or a speed standpoint with respect to that. We've played those guys intentionally to see if that combination could potentially work for us. We're just trying to give them some time to develop some chemistry."

The third and final defensive pairing brings with it the most change when compared to its 2021-22 counterpart.

Defenseman Ty Smith, brought over in the John Marino trade with the New Jersey Devils, is a smooth-skating, offensive-minded defenseman. He is a player with upside, one who looks to have rightfully earned himself a spot with the NHL club after many speculated he would be sent to the AHL due to his contract structure and not being eligible to be claimed off waivers by an opposing team.

When he was first traded to his new team, Smith spoke of the excitement of joining a contender like the Penguins.

"I just kind of knew there was a possibility (of being traded) with what they're doing there in (New) Jersey," Smith said. "Didn't really think too much about it though. Woke up, it was probably like 9:30 (a.m. on the West Coast) and had a couple of missed calls and (text messages). Tom Fitzgerald, the (general manager) of New Jersey called me and told me I had been traded to the Penguins. It was kind of a quick talk. It was a little bit of a roller coaster. Obviously, Pittsburgh is an amazing team. Heard really good things about the city. It's really exciting, really cool. A team that's a contender."

"We have high hopes for Ty," Penguins general manager Ron Hextall said. "Obviously, we gave up John Marino for him who is a very, very good NHL player. There's a little bit of risk on our part there, but we felt pretty good about it. But in terms of coming to (training) camp, like every other player, there are obviously players you know that are going to be on our team. We've got a lot of defensemen right now. We'll see how things play out with Ty."

And finally, Jan Rutta, another grizzled veteran, knows a thing or two about winning Stanley Cups. Rutta played for the back-to-back championship-winning squad in Tampa Bay. Mike Sullivan has talked about improving his team's net-front presence. Rutta will bring that presence, at least that's how Sidney Crosby sees it.

"He's got a good stick, and he's steady there," Crosby said. "He can make a good first pass, not afraid to join the rush when he needs to. But mostly, he's a defending defenseman. Steady."

By: Garrett Behanna

One position that comes with fewer question marks is that of the goaltender position. Tristan Jarry remains the team's No. 1 goalie, with veteran backup, Casey DeSmith locked in behind Jarry as the team's No. 2.

The Penguins, learning the hard way about the value of strong goalie depth after losing their 2022 first-round playoff series, (in large part due to an injury to Jarry) went out and signed Dustin Tokarski as the organization's third-string goalie.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 16: Dustin Tokarski #31 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a save on a shot by Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG PAINTS Arena on November 16, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

"They were pretty interested in having me be a part of the group," Tokarski said while speaking to the Tribune-Review. "The league has shown that it's very beneficial to have three good goalies in the organization."

"Obviously, I know who else is here for goaltender. But I'm here to hopefully help and be a part of this group. Stuff happens. You saw injuries last year with (Jarry) and Casey. I hope they're healthy. But at the same time, I'm good to play at this level and excited to be a part of this group," Tokarski added.

Yet, this is still Jarry's team, and for as impressive as he's looked in the regular season, following the disappointment of an early exit during the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, Jarry knows he will be judged on how well he performs when the pressure's on in April and May. As if he needed or wanted any more motivation, Jarry also enters this season in the final year of his current contract, earning a cap hit of $3.5 million.

Speaking with the Tribune-Review regarding the foot injury that forced him out of the 2022 playoffs, Jarry spoke with a sense of determination and forwardness as he has his eyes set on the upcoming season.

"After the playoffs, I still couldn't put my skate on for almost another month," Jarry said. "I basically played with a broken foot. I was only three weeks into my rehab at that point when I got to play. Virtually, it didn't heal in that time. It's something that I did what I could and did the best that I could with what I had. It was just getting healthy over the summer and adapting my game to what happened and getting it back to 100%."

"It was something that didn't heal as quick as I expected," Jarry said. "It was something that I had to take really good care of and do treatment on and a lot of therapy. It will help me this year, and it will make me stronger."

"The plan ultimately was for me to play Game 7 and take more time off," Jarry said. "Then play again, hopefully, later in the second round. The ultimate plan wasn't for me to play until Rounds 3 and 4. Just coming back for that Game 7 was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to give the team a chance. I wanted to leave everything out there and try to make it to Round 2."

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: Tristan Jarry #35 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save against the Washington Capitals in the first period at Capital One Arena on May 01, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Should Jarry have another impressive season and quell any lingering questions about his playoff résumé, he is sure to earn a hefty pay raise, whether that be from the Pittsburgh hockey club or one of the other 31 franchises.

On the other hand, Casey DeSmith's immediate and long-term future was much cloudier. However, Ron Hextall rewarded the New Hampshire native with a new, two-year deal, carrying a cap hit of $1.8 million.

Crosby, Malkin, and Letang cannot carry a load of an entire team as they've done for so many years prior. While their Hall of Fame accomplishments speak for themselves, and they remain viable threats whenever on the ice, if they wish to capture another one of Lord Stanley's silver chalices, they will need steady contributions from a healthy Jarry and DeSmith.

By: Garrett Behanna

So much has been made this off-season of the Penguins' aging core. An argument was made to let Malkin and Letang walk in free agency, opening the door for younger players to earn a spot in the lineup. Evgeni Malkin is 36 years old. Crosby and Letang are both 35. In the sports world, these three players are closer to the end than the beginning. 

Aiding an aging core often requires something of a youth transfusion, similar to what happened during the 2015-16 season where Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Matt Murray, Tom Kühnhackl, and eventually, Jake Guentzel, all made their NHL debuts, helping Pittsburgh win back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017.

But with the star players getting older by the day, do the Penguins have another crop of young players on the horizon?

The short answer is: not really.

Sam Poulin, one of the lone first-round draft picks of the Jim Rutherford era, is yet to make his NHL debut. However, the 21-year-old Quebec native since made a successful transition to the center position after being drafted as a winger. Poulin is eyeing a roster spot ahead of the 2022-23 campaign. Poulin brings a rugged, two-way game. Not a flashy point-producer, he will use his size to his advantage in any bottom-six role he's put in.

Drew O'Connor is another intriguing forward, one with an abbreviated NHL career. O'Connor has six points in 32 career NHL contests. He was recently sent down to the AHL farm team but remains on the short list of players who should be recalled in case of an injury at forward.

One of the longer-term projects for Ron Hextall and co. is that of 2022 first-round draft pick, defenseman Owen Pickering. Pickering is an 18-year-old, 6'7 blueliner, one with size and NHL-caliber mobility, a rare combination for players of his genetic makeup. Pickering has already been sent back to his junior team, the Swift Current Broncos. He figures to be a few years away from competing for an NHL spot.

"The core of Pickering's game is what he does with the puck. On retrievals, he deceives, cuts back, then sprints to the inside. With head fakes and changes of pace, he misdirects forecheckers and then hits a teammate up the ice. When he's not leading the rush, he's joining it. And that activation interacts with his projectable shot and exciting playmaking flashes," said the EliteProspects 2022 NHL Draft Guide.

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