The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Pittsburgh Penguins.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 37-16-3 (77 points) first place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Lost in First Round to New York Islanders in six games
• Offensive leader: Sidney Crosby (55 games, 24 goals, 62 points)
• Free Agent Additions: Brock McGinn, Danton Heinen, Dominik Simon
• Free Agent Subtractions: Jared McCann (traded to Toronto Maple Leafs), Brandon Tanev (Seattle Kraken), Cody Ceci, Colton Sceviour, Mark Jankowski, Frederick Gaudreau
Biggest question facing the Pittsburgh Penguins?
• Will the goaltending be good enough?
Honestly there are quite a few questions with this team, ranging from the health of Evgeni Malkin, the depth following the offseason departures of Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev, and the state of the defense. But all of those questions are probably insignificant compared to the obvious elephant in the room, which is the goaltending situation. It is no secret what happened in the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs where Tristan Jarry‘s struggles played a key role in their First Round result. Jarry remains a significant question mark entering this season, while the Penguins made no real change to the position by bringing back him and Casey DeSmith.
That is a big gamble for a team that is trying to maximize the remaining seasons of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. You do not want to waste any of them.
What’s the salary cap situation?
The salary cap situation for the Penguins is always going to be a challenge because they have so much money committed to their top superstars. It has worked for them for a long time. But those superstars are starting to get older, and they now have contract situations to worry about with Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust, all of whom are eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. All three players are still high level players right now, but Malkin and Letang are not getting any younger.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
How much money are the Penguins comfortable committing to them on a new contract, and for how long? Ownership wants them to finish their careers in Pittsburgh, so big decisions are ahead and a flat salary cap is not going to make them any easier.
• Pierre-Olivier Joseph
There are not many young players on this roster but Joseph is probably the most intriguing. He is the main piece of the Phil Kessel trade from a couple of years ago and is an exciting young defenseman that is the team’s most NHL-ready prospect. He got a brief cup of coffee at the NHL level a year ago and showed a ton of promise. Highly skilled, a great skater, and a potential long-term piece to their blue line. The short-term problem is he is a left defenseman and the Penguins are very strong on the left side. Mike Sullivan does not like to play defenders on their off side so it will limit his chances early on, but you have to figure injuries will happen at some point and open the door for him.
Nathan Legare and Samuel Poulin are the top forward prospects on the team, while Legare has had an impressive camp so far. He could be another potential breakout option.
If a lot of things go right this can still be a Stanley Cup contender. But a lot of things need to go right. Tristan Jarry needs to be good. Evgeni Malkin needs to come back healthy at some point and still be an impact player. Jeff Carter has to show his resurgence after the trade is something he can continue over a full season, and do so as a second-line center for at least two months and then carry the third line after that. They need Danton Heinen and Brock McGinn to be suitable replacements for Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev. And they need somebody unexpected to step up and make an impact in the bottom-six, whether it be a rookie (Legare? Poulin?) or somebody else. If most of those things happen? This is still going to be a really good team. But that is a lot of “ifs” that have to go right.
If playoff Tristan Jarry shows up again in the regular season it is going to be a major problem for the Penguins. There is also the question of Malkin’s health, Carter’s age, and the question marks in the bottom-six after losing Tanev and McCann this offseason. A struggling Jarry, declining Malkin, and lack of production from a new-look bottom-six could take a potential Stanley Cup contender and turn it into a non-playoff team in an increasingly tough Metropolitan Division.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.