Michael O’Grady | staff writer
It was an unusual April in Pittsburgh this year, because for the first time since 2006, the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 16-year run was the longest active playoff streak in hockey and included four Eastern Conference titles and three Stanley Cups.
The Penguins had been in a three-team race for two Wild Card spots with the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers for much of the 2022-23 season, and the team controlled their own destiny to clinch the final seed on April 11.
However, a shocking loss at home to the abysmal Chicago Blackhawks allowed New York to clinch the next night and end Pittsburgh’s season devastatingly early.
In response to the failure, Fenway Sports Group cleaned house and fired general manager Ron Hextall and Director of Hockey Operations Brian Burke hours after the season ended.
Though they’d been hired in emergency conditions, higher-ups and fans agreed that they’d not done enough to reach the team’s primary objective: build a championship-caliber supporting cast around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Even though those three names have already ascended into the ranks of Pittsburgh sports legends, they are still the city’s best chance at winning a championship anytime soon.
Besides being engraved on the Stanley Cup three separate times, their resumes speak for themselves: Letang is a two-time all-star and the highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history, with 691 points over 17 seasons, Malkin has won a Hart, Smythe and two Art Ross Trophies averaging over a point per game in the same timeframe and Crosby is in the inner circle of NHL legends on the back of two Harts, two Art Rosses, two Smythes and two Rocket Richard Trophies while accumulating 1,502 points over 18 seasons.
The 2023 season was particularly wasted because Malkin and Letang had rejuvenated years, while the ageless Crosby had put up his usual standard of greatness with 93 points in 82 games. The 36-year-old Malkin played the full season, something he hadn’t done since he was 22, and had one of his best seasons yet with 83 points. Letang, despite suffering a stroke and a lower-body injury, was still able to reach 41 points over 64 games.
With this kind of production coming from the Big Three, FSG had to find a general manager candidate who wouldn’t waste the final years of their careers, and they found one in Kyle Dubas.
Dubas, who is less than a year older than Malkin, was let go by the Toronto Maple Leafs after another playoff exit despite icing one of the best offenses in the league. Pittsburgh jumped at the chance to hire him.
Dubas began his offseason by flipping a third-round pick to Vegas for Reilly Smith, an instrumental cog in the Golden Knights’s Cup win in June.
Days later, he signed veteran forwards Lars Eller, Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto.
All three are expected to make up for the depth that Pittsburgh has previously lacked in their bottom six. He reaffirmed confidence in goaltender Tristan Jarry with a five-year contract, and signed for Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to back him up.
Not done yet, Dubas made his signature move at the start of August. Needing more from the blue line, he orchestrated a three-team trade that brought in reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson from San Jose.
Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Karlsson experienced the best season of his decorated career in 2023 with 101 points, a mark a defenseman hadn’t hit since 1992.
Clearly in win-now mode, the Penguins hope the new faces will complement what they had already.
Under two-time Cup winning head coach Mike Sullivan, who they kept amid the firings, they’ll bring back their formidable first line around Crosby, who will center Bryan Rust and goalscorer Jake Guentzel.
The second line looks impressive as well with Malkin centering Smith and Rickard Rakell. Both of these lines were among the top 20 in all of hockey last season.
In the bottom six, Eller is expected to play between Nieto and Drew O’Connor on the third line and the fourth line should consist of Acciari, 38-year-old Jeff Carter and either Rem Pitlick or Alex Nylander.
On defense, Graves and Letang make up the first pairing, followed by a shoot-first Karlsson next to a pass-first Marcus Pettersson.
A third pair of P.O. Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel, round out the blue line in front of Jarry, who has struggled in past seasons, especially on his glove side.
Despite the retooling, gone are the days where Pittsburgh can expect a playoff spot waiting for them.
Although the Metropolitan Division isn’t as strong as it’s been of late, new teams have become forerunners: Two of which are the Carolina Hurricanes and their iron-tight defense and the New Jersey Devils, who are ushering in Jack Hughes’s prime.
Behind them sit the New York Islanders and Rangers, two up-and-down teams with world class goalies Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin, respectively, and a 38-year-old Alex Ovechkin is still scoring 40 goals a year for the rival Washington Capitals.
Pittsburgh is throwing everything into these next two seasons, desperately trying to make the most of some of the greatest hockey players of all time. They’ll get a chance to prove they aren’t last year’s team when they look for revenge against the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night Oct. 10.