There is going to come a point in the coming years where the Pittsburgh Penguins will have to adjust to life without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They are going to get a brief taste of that at the start of the 2021-22 NHL season when their two-headed monster at center will both be sidelined.
Malkin is expected to miss at least the first two months of the season as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. Crosby, meanwhile, will probably miss the first few games after undergoing wrist surgery in September. That is going to put their center depth to the test.
It also puts added emphasis on the importance of veteran center Jeff Carter, who will temporarily have to take on the role of the team’s No. 1 pivot. Even when Crosby returns, Carter is still going to have to settle into the second-line role in Malkin’s. It is probably not what he or the team had in mind when they acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings at last year’s trade deadline.
At the time the Penguins were simply looking for somebody to help fill the third-line center spot behind Crosby and Malkin and help them improve their bottom-six and scoring depth. And Carter did exactly that, perhaps much better than anybody anticipated. He was one of their best players after the trade deadline — and one of the best trade deadline acquisitions of the season — and finished the regular season with nine goals and two assists in 11 games before adding another four goals and an assist in their First Round playoff loss to the New York Islanders.
Malkin’s injury and early season absence was not a surprise, and the Penguins knew the importance of Carter as they were willing to use one of their protected expansion draft spots on him. That might have seemed extreme for a 36-year-old on an expiring contract, but they knew that he would not only be a great fit on a fully-healthy roster, but that he was going to have to take on an expanded role earlier in the season.
The intrigue is going to be what Carter is still capable of in an increased role.
A lot of his success with the Penguins this past season was driven by a monster jump in his shooting percentage. He scored on 24% of his shots after the trade in both the regular season and playoffs. That is more than double his career average and significantly higher than what he had done the past couple of seasons in Los Angeles. Playing in a more offensive system with better talent around him almost certainly helps, but he is not going to score at that rate over a full 82-game season. But if he can simply maintain a 20-25 goal pace and drive possession that should be enough to hold the Penguins over until Malkin gets back.
The trickle down effect of all of this is it also temporarily bumps everybody else up into a higher role. Teddy Blueger goes from fourth-line shutdown center into a position where he has to be a third-line center (or perhaps even a second-line center to start the season), while wild cards like Radim Zohorna or Evan Rodrigues also have to fill in.
The key is going to be getting through the first four-five games without Crosby, and then getting through the first couple of months without Malkin. Because once they get those two back and have Carter and Blueger already in place their center depth should be as good as any team in the league. But they need Carter and Blueger to be able to handle more significant roles than originally anticipated for all of that to matter.