Penguins: 3 Burning Questions Heading Into 2021-22 Season

The Pittsburgh Penguins left last season empty-handed after a year of ups and downs, both on and off the ice. A new management regime took over control, and while they’ve been saying all the right things to fans, general manager Ron Hextall and team president Brian Burke have also been able to walk the walk off the ice. The 2020-21 season left a disappointing taste in the mouths of Penguins fans, but everyone should be able to move on as the team should be right back in the thick of contention next season. Regardless, several questions surround the team, and today, I decided to highlight a few worth discussing.

Can Tristan Jarry Bounce Back?

The hottest topic of the summer was goaltending in Pittsburgh and to this point, it’s clear that Penguins management and the roster’s core have all the faith in the world in Jarry’s abilities. The Stanley Cup Playoffs were rough for Jarry, who was getting beat by pucks in all the same places and couldn’t make the right decision with the puck numerous times, costing Pittsburgh playoff games.

Tristan Jarry Pittsburgh Penguins
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What Penguins fans don’t seem to realize is that Jarry is very inexperienced when it comes to the postseason. This was his first go at being a number one netminder for a contending team and it showed, but that doesn’t mean his career is now in shambles because of six bad games. He’s still only 26 years old, and considering he posted a 25-9-3 record during the regular season, he has the talent to be a consistent performer for the Pens and someone the team can rely on moving forward.

If you ask Hextall, he will admit he’s expecting Jarry to bounce back and he believes he’s talented enough and mentally strong enough to do so. For me, the one issue the team faces is a capable backup who can push for minutes in the crease. Casey DeSmith is a serviceable backup, but the team would benefit more from someone who is more talented and can provide some competition for Jarry and the number one job. The team should consider bringing in a veteran for training camp to create some competition.

Will Jason Zucker Find Some Chemistry With Evgeni Malkin?

The Penguins’ first line is set in stone as Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust make up one of the best trios in the league and had themselves a monster season. They expect much of the same from their first line this upcoming season, but it’s the second line that’s the game-changer for the team’s success.

Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen, and Zucker played well at times together last season, but overall, Zucker was the biggest disappointment. After the Penguins sent a decent haul to the Wild for him in 2019-20, he’s never really been able to find his game on a consistent basis playing alongside Malkin. Last season, the Newport Beach native only managed 18 points in 38 games and his nine goals aren’t good enough for someone making $5.5 million.

Jason Zucker Pittsburgh Penguins
Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Obviously, management was considering moving on from Zucker as they left him exposed in the expansion draft, but his contract price and term, compared to his production, scared the Seattle Kraken away. For someone his size, Zucker plays a physical game with 69 hits last season in 38 games, however, it’s on the score sheet that matters when you’re playing alongside one of the best centers in the world.

I wrote about it back in July, what would make the most sense would be trading Zucker. The first line is made up of some serious skill and won’t be touched. Ideally, management would love to become tougher to play against and could see some space created for Malkin and Kapanen if they played alongside someone who was a more prototypical Hextall and Burke type of forward; intimidating size, skates well and has the hockey IQ to keep up to the big guns. Unfortunately, at this time, it doesn’t appear a deal is in the cards, and Zucker will be given another shot on the team’s second line. This is certainly something to watch heading into next season.

If the Penguins Struggle, Will Kris Letang and Malkin Be Traded?

Both Letang and Malkin head into next season in the final season of their current contract and while management has admitted they would love to see the core finish their careers off as Penguins, Hextall and Burke have to do what’s best for the future of the team.

If the Penguins can’t find the right track early on next season and are fading in the standings, expect the trade chatter to pick up immensely, especially if Letang and Malkin are sitting there without contracts for 2022-23. Considering their age and the price tag that comes with it, Penguins fans need to stay open-minded about how moving both players could immensely benefit the club the next few seasons and beyond.

Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71
PHILADELPHIA, PA – FEBRUARY 23: Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a photo prior to the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

While adding Jeff Carter and signing Brock McGinn are decent moves, management has yet to make a major move to put their fingerprints all over this roster. Moving two franchise players for younger, cheaper talent would definitely accomplish that and much, much more. At this point, I would say there’s a 20% chance that Malkin and Letang get traded, and if they do, look for Malkin to be linked to the Florida Panthers, meanwhile Letang to the Montreal Canadiens. But if the Penguins can’t find success in 2021-22, that 20% will skyrocket to a 60% chance or better, there’s a deal.

Penguins fans should gear up for one of the most interesting and compelling seasons in franchise history. In 2021-22 there’s a ton of storylines shaping up to follow on and off the ice and it’s going to be a make-or-break season for some very big names. Get your popcorn ready, the entertainment begins very soon.

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