The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t started training camp for the 2021-22 season and multiple huge names are already going to be missing from the lineup come opening night. Both first- and second-line centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, underwent offseason surgeries and are expected to miss the start of the season.
Malkin had surgery in early June to repair a knee injury and there still isn’t a complete time table for his return. In the June media release, it was noted that he would miss training camp in September and they would have a further update by then. Well, we’re in September and still no update.
Penguins general manger Ron Hextall said they would know a better time frame once camp starts. “We’ll get to that once we get around training camp there and he sees the doc. We’ll have a better idea where he’s at at that point.”
Crosby’s surgery, on the other hand, was a little more unexpected. On Sept. 8, it was announced that he had surgery on his wrist and is expected to miss at least six weeks. The season is under six weeks away. It’s also the same wrist Crosby had surgery on last offseason that most fans completely forgot about.
With two of the teams’ biggest stars missing the start of the season, the starting lineups are going to look strange. There could be some new names and there might be an open opportunity for younger players to crack a regular NHL spot. Anything is possible with the Penguins’ depth right now. In a press conference following the Crosby announcement, Hextall mentioned Radim Zahorna and Evan Rodrigues as players who will be given more opportunity. “I think a guy like Zohorna showed what he showed last year. And Evan Rodrigues has got a high skill level.”
While it’s good to see Hextall instill confidence in certain players, those names aren’t roster regulars. They have the chance to be impressive and stay, but with a fully healthy lineup, it’s not expected they’d be there. While those guys may have a chance to prove their worth, there’s a different group of names that need to step up and find a new level to their game in the absence of Crosby and Malkin.
Without Crosby or Malkin, Jake Guentzel arguably turns into the best player on the team. Finishing in the top five of team scoring the past three seasons, the spotlight will be on him now more than ever.
Since joining the team, Guentzel has proven to be a student of the game, playing at a top level with whoever his center is. Both Crosby and Malkin have gotten great play out of Guentzel, but now he’ll be mostly on his own. Sure, he has Bryan Rust on his opposite wing, but without a star at center, who knows where those two go. It’ll be up to Guentzel to become a leader on the ice and score sheet to start the season.
For what it’s worth, he has the ability to fill in at center. Grinding through his college career and a little at the American Hockey League (AHL) level, he spent some time as a center. Even at the beginning of his NHL career, the Penguins gave him a shot as a center. It wasn’t horrible, but the coaching staff quickly abandoned the idea. It might not be ideal lineup wise, but if the team needs it, he can fill in for a short time.
Since joining the Penguins, Jeff Carter has been more than impressive, but this is about to be a real test. Barring any miraculous cures or sudden moves, he will be starting the season as the first-line center. It’s not ideal for a 36-year-old who has already hinted at retiring in the near future, but he doesn’t seem to have lost a step.
Carter may be past his prime, but since joining the Penguins, he has shown to be worth the investment. Closing the season with 11 points in 14 games and five points in six postseason games, he was one of the Penguins’ best players since joining the team, and that will have to continue.
If the Penguins want to be successful to start the season, Carter will have to perform as the first-line center. For a two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Olympian, that’s not a position he’s played too much. With the Los Angeles Kings, Carter would routinely play behind Anze Kopitar. And with the Philadelphia Flyers over 10 years ago, he, Daniel Briere, and Mike Richards would jostle for the top line.
Sure, over his career there have been times he’s been up top for a change, but this is going to be a real test. On a team that hasn’t missed the postseason in 15 years, the expectations are high. Carter will be tested early and often.
Even before the Crosby news broke, signing Brian Boyle to a real contract would have been a win-win move. Boyle is a big-bodied player with a long resume in the NHL. He brings a veteran voice and is easily a player who can be sent to the minors if given a full contract. Now with Crosby down, too, Boyle is a perfect option for the fourth-line center.
Boyle’s played over 800 games in the NHL, so he has a long resume of experience. Standing at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, he fits the Hextall and Brian Burke mold perfectly. Boyle’s not afraid of the chippy side of the game and is willing to use his height. You could say Boyle plays with “truculence,” and that’s something Burke will like.
At this point, there’s no reason not to sign Boyle. We know he has the experience and is perfect to play bottom-six minutes for a short stint. He’s always played over his skill level against the Pens, too. In 44 career games against Pittsburgh, he has 17 points (nine goals, eight assists), tied for a career high in points against a specific team. The other team in question? The Washington Capitals — where his 17 points come in 36 games. He sounds like a good addition for that rivalry.
It’s all up to Boyle now — he has to impress on his professional tryout. If he can prove to still cut it in the NHL, there isn’t a reason for the Penguins to pass on him. The team needs the depth and he provides it with a veteran presence. Like mentioned before, it’s a win-win.
One thing all these names won’t be able to do is replace the amount of production Crosby and Malkin can bring to every game. With that being said, if the Penguins want to win games, the defense will have to step forward. Tristan Jarry will have to be the one taking the majority of that spotlight.
Already a player who needs to improve from a disaster of a postseason, Jarry will have to use the start of to 2021-22 season to hit a new peak in his play. It’s very well possible for him to step up, too. He survived an entire offseason where the main talking point was if he would get a new partner or be replaced. Hextall stood behind Jarry as the No. 1 goalie and no moves were made.
The goalie is your last line of defense, and when your offence may be questionable, its up to the goalie to make a difference. We’ve seen it over and over in the NHL, a team is nothing without a solid goalie. A lot of weight is already on Jarry’s shoulders after last playoffs, but a new year is a new opportunity. Now is not the time to lose hope in him, but rally behind him and give him full support.
It’s going to be up to Jarry to secure wins on the back end. He has starting-caliber skill, and his 2020-21 regular season proved that. Going 25-9-3 is pretty good; the 25 wins alone stood fourth in the league, one behind Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury. One piece that Jarry will have to improve upon is starting hot. He was slow out of the gate last year and that cost early wins. With Crosby and Malkin down, the Penguins can’t afford early season losses.
Since the Penguins won’t be missing Crosby or Malkin for longer term, there is no reason to utilize the Tampa Bay Lightning’s long-term injured reserve maneuvers. “The problem is, if you use it, you have to go back and get cap compliant when Sid and Geno come back. It’s not as easy as it looks,” Hextall said. “We have to be cap compliant when both players come back. So, we can’t add a big dollar player here because they’re both going to be back.”
There will be plenty of home cooking as eight of the first 10 games will be played at PPG Paints Arena. It’s going to take the entire team to bridge the gap between the start of the season and the duo of future Hall of Famers returns, but they should still be able to win games. If the right players step up, it should be smooth sailing.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.