As the summer of 2023 winds down, NHL training camps will start soon, which means the 2023-24 regular season will soon be upon us. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it has been an eventful offseason, following the team’s first absence from the playoffs in 17 years.
New general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas came aboard in June, he hired Jason Spezza soon thereafter, and the two of them set about reshaping the team. Their biggest get, of course, was defenseman Erik Karlsson, but other moves, like acquiring right wing Reilly Smith fresh off a Stanley Cup win with the Vegas Golden Knights, give the sense that the Penguins are headed in the right direction.
Still, there are no guarantees, and ice is slippery and unforgiving. Going into this season, I have many questions regarding things that could make or break any success for this team. Here are three of my biggest burning questions.
How Long Can Sidney Crosby Keep This Up?
Sidney Crosby has been among the NHL’s elite for almost 20 years, and last season I wrote about how his elite level of play in his 18th season was something not seen since the likes of Joe Sakic, Mark Messier, or Wayne Gretzky. But even the greatest slow down at some point. When will time catch up with the 36-year-old Crosby?
In 2022-23 Crosby got off to a great start with 27 points through the first 20 games. By game 68, he had put up 83 points, maintaining a 100-point pace. At that point, with the Penguins’ vaunted playoff streak in jeopardy, it seemed he might be able to will the team into the postseason. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and he managed only four goals and 10 points in the final 14 games, finishing the season with 33 goals and 93 points.
As this season begins, Penguins fans would have every right to worry about their captain’s age. Not to mention, there ought to be equal concern with the production and health of Evgeni Malkin. However, Crosby is the engine that powers this team, and his commitment to conditioning, not to mention the additions Dubas has made to the roster, should grant at least one more season of greatness.
Latest News & Highlights
Crosby playing with Karlsson might also have fans salivating. With Karlsson running the point on the power play, there is no reason to count out Crosby for another 100-point season, which would be his seventh and would see him vault over Phil Esposito into the top-10 greatest scorers of all time.
If Crosby, Karlsson, and the offense can click, it might mean a return to playoff action, maybe more. It is a big “If,” but also worth the risk. And it leads to …
Which Erik Karlsson Are the Penguins Getting?
When the Penguins acquired Karlsson, I wrote that their complexion had changed. The team went from one that struggled to find goals down the stretch last season to one that could very well be a juggernaut in 2023-24. But I also mentioned one major caveat: his health.
Perhaps even a bigger issue than keeping the aging Crosby and Malkin healthy this season will be making sure their newly acquired prized defenseman also stays healthy. During his run with the San Jose Sharks, Karlsson played in only 293 of 372 games, missing at least 26 games in three of the five seasons with the team. If he should get hurt and miss a significant amount of time, the Penguins’ $10 million man could be a major blunder.
Then again, last season Karlsson was healthy, he was motivated, and he put up the first 100-point season from a defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. While there is no guarantee he will reach 100 points again, the Penguins will surely welcome 90, 80, or even 70 points, so long as Karlsson helps their power play, which was a middling 14th overall last season at a 21.72 percent efficiency.
With Karlsson transforming the Penguins’ defense, he will need a reliable stay-at-home partner to compensate for the lack of coverage in the team’s own end. That could add more pressure on the goaltenders, which raises the question …
What Can the Penguins Expect from Tristan Jarry?
As much as the health of Crosby, Malkin, or Karlsson, the health of Tristan Jarry could be the Penguins’ X-factor this season. Though there was speculation the Penguins might seek another goaltender this offseason, Dubas signed Jarry to a five-year contract. The deal solidified the 28-year-old netminder’s spot with the team and their commitment to his development.
Now, when Jarry is on, he can be a very good goaltender. The COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season illustrated this. He outplayed then-starter Matt Murray with a shimmering .921 save percentage (SV%), though the young goaltender has been up and down since then.
In 2021-22, Jarry posted 34 wins and a .919 SV%, and for a second time captured the seventh most votes for the Vezina Trophy. Last season, prior to his getting injured, he put up a 16-5-5 record with a .921 SV%. At that time, in early January, the Penguins were a playoff-bound team. But from then on, he was a mediocre 8-8-2 with an .890 SV%, with the team missing out on the playoffs to both the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders in the 2022-23 regular season’s closing days.
What they will need from Jarry is to adjust to a looser defense with Karlsson in the mix, and for him to stay healthy. As seen from the play of Alex Nedeljkovic, there is an even greater swing from good to bad, thus demanding greater focus from Jarry. Will he be up to the task?
Surely Dubas and his management staff have considered all of this, and surely they have contingency plans in place. But as the 2023-24 season approaches, this writer remains cautious.