Time to find out — at least in the short term — if the players the three-time Stanley Cup champions have mentored are ready to stand on their own.
The Penguins opened training camp on Thursday with Crosby still recovering from wrist surgery that will force him to miss at least the first couple of weeks of the regular season. Malkin isn’t expected back until late November at the earliest after having knee surgery in June.
While both stars remain integral parts of Pittsburgh’s plan to get back into the Stanley Cup mix following a third straight playoff flameout, their absence gives Penguins coach Mike Sullivan a glimpse — however brief — of how far the group that’s spent most of their careers playing in the considerable shadows cast by Crosby and Malkin have come.
“When you lose players of that stature like Sid and Geno for a period of time, it’s hard to replace those guys, both in the locker room and on the ice and how they perform,” Sullivan said. “But we have a lot of guys that bring a lot of leadership to the table that understand the circumstance that we’re in.”
Namely, trying to make sure the Penguins keep their head above water until reinforcements arrive.
Goals figure to be harder to come by without Malkin and Crosby’s elite playmaking. It will require a blue-collar approach, one forward Jake Guentzel believes his team is ready to embrace.
“We’ve got to do it by committee,” said Guentzel, who had 23 goals in the COVID-19 pandemic shortened 56-game 2020-21 regular season. “But I think we have the players to do it. Guys need to step up.”
Guentzel, Bryan Rust and veteran forward Jeff Carter — who was rejuvenated after being picked up at the trade deadline last year — chief among them. The 36-year-old Carter scored 13 goals in 20 games (playoffs included) after being acquired from Los Angeles. Carter took over Crosby’s spot centering the top line on the first day of camp, though Carter stressed he’s not replacing anybody.
“I’ll try to do my part to alleviate some of that pressure (of playing without Crosby and Malkin),” Carter said. “But we’re going to need it from everybody. They’re the two best players on the team. So it’s going to be big to ask from everybody but it should be fun.”
An element that’s been missing of late, at least when it matters. While the Penguins won the East Division last spring to extend their playoff streak to 15 years and counting, their momentum evaporated during a six-game loss to the New York Islanders in the first round.
Goaltender Tristan Jarry struggled during the series, including a baffling giveaway in Game 5 that led directly to a series-shifting overtime goal and a shaky performance in Game 6 in which he allowed five goals on just 24 shots. Still, the Penguins opted to stick with Jarry and backup Casey DeSmith rather than look for help elsewhere.
“We have high expectations of Tristan,” Sullivan said. “He’s a really good goalie. And that opinion hasn’t changed on any of our parts.”
Jarry spent a part of the offseason working out in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and received plenty of support from longtime netminders who told him his playoff troubles were a blip and nothing more.
“It’s kind of like a goalie union,” Jarry said. “You have their back and they have yours.”
Sullivan, recently picked to coach Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics, doesn’t think the Penguins need to revisit their approach after getting pushed around at times by the Islanders.
Yes, the end of last season was disappointing, but he made a point to say it shouldn’t discount what came before.
The Penguins won a highly competitive division despite extended absences of several high-profile players, Malkin and forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker among them. Thirty different players earned a point, stunning considering the shortness of the schedule.
They opted not to overhaul the roster, though one might be looming with Malkin, Rust and defenseman Kris Letang all entering the final year of their contracts. General manager Ron Hextall said Thursday there has been little movement on that front, leaving the possibility that this could be the last go-round for part of the core that’s helped the Penguins raise three Stanley Cup banners since 2009.
Letang said his future in Pittsburgh is out of his hands, saying he’s going to leave it to his agents and Hextall to figure out if something can get done. For now, the 15-year veteran is trying to just help a team missing its cornerstones find its way until they return.
“I think we all believe in the group we have and the players we have in our dressing room,” Letang said. “So there’s a lot of faith.”