Henne: Expectations should be high for Penguins

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief | In 2021-22, the Pittsburgh Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 16th season in a row. With the majority of the team’s core back, Pittsburgh will look to make a deep run in 2022-23.

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief

Oct. 13, 2022

Entering an offseason that left the Pittsburgh Penguins with more questions than answers, the team responded by keeping its core fully intact.

Star forwards Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, and defenseman Kris Letang returned to Pittsburgh despite persistent speculation that there was virtually no possibility that all three could be kept around due to cap-related issues. With the exception of a few depth moves on defense and in the bottom-six forward lines, Pittsburgh has the pieces in place to replicate the success its found by making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last 16 seasons.

Defensemen John Marino (traded to the New Jersey Devils) and Mike Matheson (traded to Montreal Canadiens) were swapped for Ty Smith and Jeff Petry, respectively (Pittsburgh also acquired Ryan Poehling from Montreal).

Depth options like Evan Rodrigues and Radim Zohorna went elsewhere, but that depth will be addressed through signings of forwards like Josh Archibald and Drake Caggiula. The Penguins also added defensive depth in free agency, inking Jan Rutta and Xavier Ouellet to multi-year contracts.

Other than that, the re-signings of Malkin, Rust and Letang, as well as forwards Danton Heinen and Rickard Rakell, show that general manager Ron Hextall is all in with the core of talent at his disposal.

There was no rebuild or retooling. Hextall is trusting his gut and believing in the players on this roster. That’s a sign of confidence, and that’s admirable.

With that in mind, there is no reason that the Penguins shouldn’t be a realistic threat to win the Stanley Cup this year. According to FanDuel Sportsbook, the Penguins have the ninth-best odds to hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of this season.

Pittsburgh’s main obstacles will be the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, Metropolitan Division rivals that occupied the division’s two spots ahead of the Penguins a season ago. Both Carolina and New York have better odds to win it all in 2022-23.

The National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference got stronger, but much of that came through the moves made by teams like the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings—both members of the Atlantic Division.

With all things considered, the Metropolitan Division looks to pave a very-favorable path for the Penguins.

The Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets each made splash moves by signing Ondrej Palat and Johnny Gaudreau, respectively, but each of those two teams still appear to be a few years from legitimate contention.

The New York Islanders are a team that lacks a true identity, and could see their season go south extremely quickly.

The Philadelphia Flyers are expected to be one of the NHL’s worst teams under John Tortorella in his first year with Philadelphia. While the Washington Capitals have maintained their core of players in a fashion similar to Pittsburgh, their window looks to be closing rather quickly.

The Penguins’ goals should be well within reach, and the only thing that might prevent them from getting there — aside from the Hurricanes and Rangers — are injuries.

Pittsburgh held a 3-1 series lead in the quarterfinal round of last year’s postseason against the Rangers, but injuries to captain Sidney Crosby and starting goaltender Tristan Jarry allowed New York to sneak its way back into the series and, ultimately, come back to defeat Pittsburgh.

Last season, the Penguins proved they could only bend for so long before they broke against a team as strong as the Rangers.

If the health is not too big a factor and the production of core players like Crosby, Malkin and Letang holds up, the Penguins will be in good shape to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

The Penguins’ run begins on Thursday, when they host the Arizona Coyotes in the season opener at PPG Paints Arena.