The Pittsburgh Penguins enter this season expecting to contend for the Stanley Cup. General manager (GM) Ron Hextall did a fine job this summer locking up some big names for the Penguins, including Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell. Hextall was active on the trade market and has done a fantastic job re-tooling on the fly.
Expect to see more changes coming in-season as the Penguins will likely be a buyer come the trade deadline as they’re expected to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. While there could be some more talent coming in during the 2022-23 season, today’s focus is on three Penguins who are very likely entering their final season in Pittsburgh. Here’s three Penguins not expected back in 2023-24:
Talk about pressure to perform, there’s perhaps no other forward on the Penguins who has the type of pressure Jason Zucker has on his shoulders to produce. Since the trade from the Minnesota Wild in 2019-20, Zucker has been inconsistent and underachieving for the Penguins.
Zucker hasn’t been able to stay healthy and when he has suited up, there’s been no evidence of ideal chemistry with Malkin on the team’s second line. Expect to see Danton Heinen push the veteran forward for ice time at left wing with Malkin, as Rakell is set in stone on the right side.
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Zucker has one season left on his contract, paying him $5.5 million. He holds a no-trade clause protecting him from 10 teams, and at this point, his trade value is pennies on the dollar, so expect to see him ride out this season with the Penguins.
Come next summer, however, the 30-year-old will be in tough to stick around in Pittsburgh. It will take some serious production, something over 50 points, a fully healthy season and a cemented role on the team. A lot to ask, no doubt; Zucker is likely heading into his last season with the franchise.
One of the longest serving Penguins on the roster, veteran defenseman Brian Dumoulin could very well be on the outside looking in next summer. Hextall has shown the willingness to refresh his blue line with a couple of major moves recently, and if it’s a down year for Dumoulin in 2022-23, don’t expect management to be willing to give the 30-year-old a long-term contract.
For a defensive-minded blueliner who chips in with 15-20 points per season, Dumoulin is a bit overpriced at $4 million per season. The team appears set to move forward with Jeff Petry, Letang, Jan Rutta and Marcus Pettersson all signed for at least three more seasons.
Dumoulin’s game doesn’t jump off the score sheet; he’s a steady, quiet defender who has been a staple in Pittsburgh for parts of nine seasons. He’s at his best when you don’t notice him on the ice and expect to see him and Letang paired together for most of this season.
Considering the potential cost and the Penguins current roster, at this point it feels like Dumoulin is entering his final season in Pittsburgh. It’s going to take one of his best seasons in recent memory, along with a desire to stay in town on the cheap for management to re-sign him.
Another Penguin who is going to have to prove his value to management this season is center Teddy Blueger. While he does a fine job in the faceoff circle and is a big part of the team’s penalty kill, it’s likely management would love to see some more intense and physical play out of their fourth-line center.
Blueger is expected to be pushed by newly acquired center Ryan Poehling, with Blueger having the upper hand with head coach Mike Sullivan just based on familiarity alone. He’s coming off a fine season where he produced 28 points in 65 games and ranked first in shorthanded ice time by Penguins forwards.
Hextall currently has roughly $20 million in cap space to work with next summer, with goaltender Tristan Jarry in need of a contract extension. Blueger will have to get off to a fantastic start to this season and try and get signed to a long-term deal in-season, or else he could become an afterthought next summer when all of the attention will be on re-signing Jarry and finding another talented winger for Malkin’s line.
Penguins fans should expect to see a very competitive team this season. Their roster is essentially set for training camp and there’s not a ton of opportunity to fight for in preseason. Regardless of the outcome in 2022-23, a hard salary cap and management’s desire to put their fingerprints on this roster, will both influence some changes next summer. Look for the three Penguins mentioned to be hard-pressed to return in 2023-24.