For the most part, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had a pretty smooth offseason. However, in true Pittsburgh fashion, the injury train has already left the station. Forward Jake Guentzel had been dealing with an ankle injury that he sustained towards the end of the season. The Penguins were hopeful that he would be able to rehab his ankle without surgery, but once he returned to the ice it was clear surgery would be necessary.
On Aug. 2, Guentzel underwent right ankle surgery and is set to be re-evaluated in 12 weeks. This timeline has him out until at least mid-October. He is expected to miss the first six games and possibly more depending on his progress. If the Penguins chose to place him on long-term injured reserve it would provide them with some salary-cap relief, but it would also require Guentzel to miss the first 10 games.
The only thing Pittsburgh knows for sure right now is that there will be a hole in the top six that they need to fill. With training camp opening on Sept. 21, there will be a handful of players competing for the open slot in the top six.
On Aug. 2, the Penguins signed forward Drew O’Connor to a two-year, $1.85 million deal. O’Connor is naturally a left winger and could be the perfect fill-in for Guentzel. This will be his fourth year with the Penguins, but he has spent most of his playing time in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Over the past three seasons, he has been a point-per-game player in the AHL scoring 22 points in 20 games last year.
O’Connor plays well on defense and would be a positive contributor on the penalty kill. Last season, he played in 46 NHL games and scored five goals with six assists. For the most part, the Penguins used him on the fourth line, and he averaged 9:49 of ice time per night. He definitely has the potential to improve, and should be given the chance to do so.
Alex Nylander spent most of last season in Wilkes-Barre where he played in 55 games and scored 25 goals and had 25 assists for a total of 50 points. He also spent some time playing on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing last season and showed some definite promise. He played in a total of nine games last year and scored one goal and had one assist.
Even though the sample size is small, when he was paired with Malkin the Penguins had 58.97 percent of the shot attempts and 64.52 percent of all high-danger shot attempts. He has proven that he can definitely score goals and with some more time to settle in he could end up being a permanent fixture in the top six.
In late June, the Vegas Golden Knights traded forward Reilly Smith to the Penguins in exchange for a 2024 third-round draft pick. He played in 78 regular season games last season and scored 26 goals with 30 assists. He plays well on defense and has the ability to play left wing or right wing. He is also a very reliable producer on offense and could be the perfect complement to Sidney Crosby in Guentzel’s absence.
Who Steps In?
The Penguins always seem to have the worst luck when it comes to injuries. The season has not even started yet, and one of their best players is already out until at least the middle of October. However, this could be the perfect opportunity to discover a new talent. The team can not afford to waste any time if they plan to make it back to the playoffs this season, so someone in the top six has to step up in a big way.