Now that the 2022-23 NHL season is officially underway, it’s time to see if the preseason predictions will come true. Many analysts and fans alike have selected who they believe the eventual champions will be. Many mentions went to the Colorado Avalanche, last year’s Stanley Cup champion, as well as perennial powerhouses like the Toronto Maple Leafs and teams fresh off rebuilds like the New York Rangers. Along with these teams, those with a history of success in the modern era have also found themselves named among the title contenders.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one such team, as some of the clairvoyants have pegged them as the eventual champions, including the annual EA Sports NHL season simulation. Despite the fact that they have been selected as one of the teams with a chance to win it all, their road to glory will be extremely treacherous.
Offseason Spending Limits In-Season Options
The headlines this past offseason were dominated by teams that struggled to ‘mind the cap’ and found themselves surpassing the acceptable threshold. Just recently, social media discourse swirled around the Maple Leafs’ cap maneuvering, a series of moves that left them with a grand total of $4 in cap space. The Penguins also found themselves on the list of teams attempting to navigate the cap, as general manager (GM) Ron Hextall has been forced to limit his pool of prospects, including highly-touted defenceman Pierre-Olivier Joseph. To complicate matters further, their reputation for wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline cultivated under former general manager (GM) Jim Rutherford and lovingly continued by Hextall may cease as a result.
A prime example of the type of trade that may no longer arise is that which brought forward Rickard Rakell to the Steel City. At the 2021-22 deadline, Hextall and Anaheim Ducks’ GM Pat Verbeek agreed on a deal that sent Rakell eastward in exchange for a package of players, including Zach Aston-Reese (now of the Maple Leafs) and Dominik Simon. Originally thought to be a rental player, Rakell ended up signing a six-year, $30 million contract on July 11. Past deadlines have been filled with moves like these, and some may say this history has ultimately led to the Penguins’ precarious financial situation; these types of transactions have worked out in the past, and it may have led those in the organization to believe the most recent one would have the same results.
Penguins’ Opponents in the Metro Division Getting Stronger
For the better part of the last two decades, the Penguins were the powerhouse of the Metropolitan Division as well as its predecessor, the Atlantic Division. Winning the division four times in the last 15 years alone, they have also captured three Stanley Cups in that time frame, while their familiar rivals watched from the sidelines. In recent years, the others in the Metro have stolen the spotlight; some consistently, and some as one-season wonders. In 2017-18, the Washington Capitals disrupted Pittsburgh’s dominance, taking home the Presidents’ Trophy before eliminating the Pens in the second round on their way to raising their first Stanley Cup.
In 2021-22 the Penguins were once again overshadowed in the division, this time by the Rangers, who themselves saw the fruits of years of rebuilding turn into a second-place finish (above the Penguins, who finished third) and an Eastern Conference Final appearance.
It was these same Rangers who eliminated the Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the boys from Broadway took it to their rivals in the regular season as well, winning the season series and dominating much of the play. The Carolina Hurricanes, also reaping the rewards of an extensive rebuild, finished ahead of both the Rangers and Penguins last season, winning the division outright.
Penguins’ Core Returns, But With Limits
The Penguins can consider themselves one of the lucky few teams who have been able to retain their core players for much of the last two decades. Captain Sidney Crosby, forward Evgeni Malkin, and defenceman Kris Letang are the longest-tenured members and have each been there for the three most recent championship runs, stretching all the way back to 2008-09. These players have made themselves into local legends, and practically every jersey or shirt seen at PPG Paints Arena bears the name of one of these three players. However, just as remaining with the team has turned each of them into a face of the franchise, it also means each is getting older as the seasons go on.
Crosby and Letang are both 35 now, and Malkin is 36. Although the latter two were both just signed to long-term deals, their ability to produce consistently may begin to wane soon. Malkin spent extensive time on injured reserve last season, and Letang’s average time on ice (TOI) clocked in at 25:47, the third-highest in his career. While both he and Crosby are healthy, exertion like that isn’t handled by someone who’s 35 as easily as by someone who’s 20. The wear and tear that naturally comes with professional hockey could be a barrier for these players for the first time in their entire careers. (From “Edge of 17: Pens’ core of Crosby, Letang, Malkin still going” Will Graves, The Associated Press, 12/10/2022).
While it remains a possibility for the Penguins to go on another remarkable Cup run – and they have indicated their desire for one last go-round – there are a number of big obstacles in their path. Only time and the natural course of the season will determine whether they can overcome them.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.