State of the Penguins: A full evaluation entering the 2023-24 NHL season – The Athletic

The Pittsburgh Penguins have made so many changes in the past 36 months. Very little remains the same, with the exception of the unwavering presence of Mike Sullivan, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

The team was sold. A general manager resigned. Another was fired. A president of hockey operations was fired, too. A CEO resigned. The team’s 15-year sellout strike finally came to an end. So did the longest postseason streak of any North American professional sports team. Bottom-six players came and went like car parts in a factory. Stalwarts from the Stanley Cup years were traded or signed elsewhere. The icon of all icons, the person who is the Penguins’ very foundation — Mario Lemieux — no longer comes to PPG Paints Arena.

And yet, with training camp mere days away and another season about to begin, the Penguins feel oddly alive and stable.

Maybe it’s the fresh face of Kyle Dubas, whose articulation and aggression breathed life into an organization and a fan base. Maybe it’s the presence of Erik Karlsson, who has the Penguins in his DNA. Or maybe, as long as Crosby wears the “C” on his sweater, everyone will feel a sense of hope when September arrives.

The Penguins are suddenly relevant again and could be a factor in the Eastern Conference. Or, perhaps, age will continue its assault and their fade will be as dramatic as their ascent nearly two decades ago.

No one knows, but given the collection of talent on hand, everyone will be watching.

Let’s take a look at the state of the Penguins as we approach the 2023-24 NHL season.

Biggest on-ice question

Will Karlsson mesh well with the Penguins?

It’s not like adding a Hall of Famer is a bad thing, obviously.

Still, we’ve never seen Karlsson play with this group, and it remains to be seen if he will seamlessly fit. Many thought his presence in San Jose would lead to great team success, but the Sharks were a profound disappointment.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine that Karlsson won’t help the Penguins. He will likely run the power play and figures to join Marcus Pettersson as one half of a top four that could be one of the NHL’s best. It’s fair to ask, however, if Karlsson can stay healthy and if he can produce a number similar to his outrageous 101-point campaign that earned him last season’s Norris Trophy.

Players of Karlsson’s ilk don’t change teams very often, so it will be fascinating to watch training camp and the early portions of October to gauge if he immediately clicks with the Penguins. If he does, look out. This team could generate a serious amount of offense.

Depth chart analysis 


Crosby was typically great last season, even though he did fade a bit in the season’s final month. The responsibility he was carrying for an utterly insufficient roster finally caught up to him, to some extent. But that’s no knock. He remains one of the five or 10 best players in the sport, even at 36, and there’s every reason to believe he will continue his assault on the league that began in 2005.

Malkin has lost a step but still remains a point-per-game player capable of taking over. Karlsson’s presence could have a huge impact on Malkin, who figures to see ample ice time with Karlsson in even-strength situations.

Lars Eller isn’t the least bit flashy but is excellent defensively and skilled enough to produce reasonably for a third-line center. He should be an upgrade.

Noel Acciari should also be an upgrade over whatever combination of players we saw as the No. 4 center last season. He plays with an edge, is good defensively and will contribute a handful of goals.

For the sake of depth, the Penguins can always use Jeff Carter at center, though his severe decline overt he past 12 months would make right wing a more attractive option. Drew O’Connor is a natural center, also.

Reilly Smith celebrates Vegas’ Stanley Cup win.

Left wing

Jake Guentzel will miss at least a few games to begin the season, but when he returns, the Penguins’ top six will be set. He’s one of the great goal-scorers in hockey and should be plenty motivated in a contract season.

Reilly Smith comes to the Penguins from Vegas and is one of the NHL’s more consistent left wings. He scores. He can skate. He’s a solid two-way player and brings some size. The Penguins are set at left wing on their top two lines.

O’Connor has talent and almost always puts on a show in training camp. He needs to put a complete NHL season together. The ability is there.

Matt Nieto is a solid bottom-six player who should serve as an upgrade on the fourth line and the penalty kill.

Right wing

Rickard Rakell was very good in his first full season with the Penguins and can play with Crosby or Malkin.

Even if he had an off season in 2022-23, Bryan Rust was perfectly usable in the top six. But he wasn’t the same player. He looked a step slow at times, compared to the dynamo he’s always been. The Penguins could use a bounce-back season from Rust.

Rem Pitlick was part of the Karlsson trade and is a legitimate NHL player, but is he a third-line player? Tough to say.

Carter was better in the last few weeks of last season, but, frankly, his play in the season’s first few months set a low bar. The Penguins almost certainly would have moved on from him after last season, but because of his contract, they can’t.

Right wing, after Rakell and Rust, is a pretty big question mark.

Left defense

Ryan Graves should be a significant upgrade over what we saw from post-2019-ankle-injury Brian Dumoulin. Look for him to play with Letang. He’s big, solid defensively and a capable puck mover who has scored 14 goals during the past two seasons.

Pettersson took a big step last season and has cemented himself as the Penguins’ best defensive player.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph’s size will always be a concern, and he wore down last season. But he can skate and has talent. Perhaps Ty Smith will push him during training camp.

Right defense

Letang endured a nightmare off the rink last season. Now that things are more stable in his life, it’s fair to assume he’ll rebound on the ice this season.

Karlsson should provide quite a jolt to the Penguins’ five-on-five attack.

Chad Ruhwedel’s play declined a bit last season, but he’s reliable enough. Mark Friedman provides depth and entertainment value.


The spotlight will be shining brighter than ever on Tristan Jarry. He dealt with a back injury, among other injuries, last season. Jarry just got paid big money, and the Penguins need him to be among the best 10 or 15 goalies in the NHL this season. If he’s not, they’ll have a problem because of the Eastern Conference’s depth.

In Alex Nedeljkovic, the Penguins have identified a goaltender they believe has the talent to be an upgrade at backup. We shall see.

Special teams

Power play

Buckle up. The power play was substandard last season, given its talent. Well, now, Karlsson is added to the equation.

We know Karlsson, Crosby and Malkin will be on the power play. We know Guentzel will be there when he’s healthy. Who is the fifth piece? It figures to be either Letang or Rakell. It shouldn’t matter who.

Look at those names. Consider the talent. This needs to be a great strength for the Penguins and it should be.

Penalty kill

The penalty kill wasn’t good last season. The forwards should be much better. Look for Eller, Acciari and Nieto to make a positive difference.

The blue line’s ability to kill penalties is concerning. It’s not one of Karlsson’s strengths. Joseph also isn’t especially good in that area. Pettersson and Graves are fairly good on the penalty kill. Letang isn’t bad, though you don’t want him using too much energy in that role.

Salary cap watch

The situation isn’t bad. Granted, the Penguins are literally up against the cap right now, but it’s manageable and nothing to worry about.

Looking forward, things aren’t so bad. Let’s assume the cap starts to elevate next season, as I suspect it will. The Penguins will be around $20 million under the cap next summer as things currently stand, with Carter and Ruhwedel coming off the books. They’ll have plenty of money to sign Guetnzel and to add a couple of pieces next summer, if they don’t add significantly to the roster between now and then.

Kyle Dubas reshaped the Penguins in many ways in just one offseason.

Final assessment

These are the final years of the Crosby era. Will there be two years left, or maybe five? No one knows, but we do know the end is coming. Dubas wants to do everything in his power to give Crosby, Malkin and Letang a final run or two. Karlsson should help immensely. The bottom six should be better, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a strength.

There are many questions. How will Karlsson fit? Will O’Connor finally emerge? Will the power play be lights out? Is Jarry really the guy? And how long can Crosby keep pushing back Father Time?

Along with those questions, the Penguins have holes in their lineup, especially at right wing and on the third pairing.

They also have more talent than we’ve seen in years. They should be a playoff team. Will this roster translate to postseason success? It’s impossible to say, but we know next season won’t be boring.

And, in that way, the Penguins are back.

(Photos: Getty Images)

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