The 2022-23 season was a disappointing one for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were inconsistent all season, in the playoffs and then out again down the stretch, and finally in the final week of the regular season they were eliminated from the postseason for the first time since 2006.
In this series, we will look at groups of players, grade their season performance, and look at their future with the team, as the incoming general manager (GM) to be named assesses the situation. Here, we look at Rickard Rakell, Bryan Rust, and Jeff Petry.
While not the highest profile Penguins, this trio was as responsible for any success or lack thereof the team experienced. Rakell enjoyed another solid year playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker, Rust was merely okay alongside the ageless Sidney Crosby, and Petry struggled to stay healthy after joining Pittsburgh from the Montreal Canadiens.
Rakell Remained Reliable
While Ron Hextall’s tenure as Penguins’ GM was ultimately a disaster, there were occasional bright spots. Trading for Rakell was one of them.
When Rakell began his career with the Anaheim Ducks, the team was still competitive, and playing with the talented Ryan Getzlaf allowed him to develop and blossom. He produced back-to-back 30-goal seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 before he and the team went into a funk. When Hextall came calling in March 2022, the talented Swede turned out to be a perfect fit with Malkin.
Upon joining the Penguins, Rakell responded with 13 points in his first 19 regular season games. This season, he played a full 82-game schedule for the first time in his career, posting 28 goals and 32 assists for 60 points. He was third on the team in goals, fourth in assists, and fourth in points. He tied Jake Guentzel and Malkin for the team lead in power play goals with 11 and Kris Letang for fifth in power play points with 21. In a season marred by gray skies, Rakell was a welcome ray of light.
Rakell recently turned 30, which seems relatively young on the NHL’s oldest roster. But he is signed through 2027-28, giving the incoming GM one less headache. The test for Rakell now is getting back to the 30-goal plateau, while the team seeks to get back into the playoffs.
Final Grade: B+
Rust Took a Step Back
Unlike Rakell, Rust is a home-grown talent. After the core of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, and then Brian Dumoulin, he is the longest-tenured Penguin with 505 games played. And while that does mean something, the last 81 were not his best.
When Rust and Guentzel were younger and getting established, it seemed like they would continue the high production that wingers like James Neal, Chris Kunitz, and Phil Kessel enjoyed. For Guentzel, that has been the case. For Rust, it was until this year.
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During the previous three seasons, Rust scored at or near a point-per-game pace. He maintained a 35-goal pace (projected over a full season), contributed well on the power play, and brought a good spark to the team. This season, not so much.
Rust scored only two goals on the power play and added only nine assists with the man advantage. Other than a three-game run in early April when he had four goals and five points, including a two-goal, three-point effort in a loss to the Boston Bruins, he was a ghost of his former self in the final quarter of the year. He contributed only five goals and nine points in the final 21 games.
Sure, he did score 20 goals overall, giving this season’s Penguins six 20-goal scorers for the first time since the powerhouse 1995-96 team. But he just looked slower this year. Like Rakell, he is signed through 2027-28, but he looks on the decline at 31 instead of revitalized like his teammate. Next season he will have something to prove.
Final Grade: C-
Petry Left a Lot to Be Desired
On paper, acquiring Jeff Petry didn’t seem like a bad move at the time. He was a veteran defenseman providing stability on the blue line, and as evidenced by his run with the Canadiens, he could contribute upwards of 40 points and give you some power play time.
But when put into practice, it didn’t quite pan out. Sure, Petry did contribute 26 assists and 31 points, both second to Letang among Penguins’ defensemen. And he did that in 61 games, but that was a problem. He had been reliable and healthy in Montreal, missing only three games from 2016-21. He missed 14 in his final season as a Canadien, which appears to be the start of a trend.
He isn’t contributing as much offensively or physically as the Penguins had hoped, yet he is missing significant chunks of the season when he is needed the most. Like Dumoulin, he looked slow against the league’s younger talent, and at 35 he isn’t getting any younger himself. With another year left on his contract, he will look for a bounce back in 2023-24, but who knows what that will yield?
Final Grade: C-
Here we have three players on one team who are heading in different directions. Rakell looks to have found a home and is thriving, while Rust and Petry have slowed down and taken a step back.
All three are over 30 and will have something to prove next season. With each one under contract heading into 2023-24, it will be interesting to see what the incoming GM does, whether choosing to make a move or finding a way to motivate the aging roster.