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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – Team Preview – Player Profiles

Review: For the first time, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin played a full 82 games in the same year and the Penguins’ other star forward, Jake Guentzel, appeared in 78 contests. You’d think that’d be a recipe for success, but instead Pittsburgh finished with a 40-31-11 record, narrowly missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The supporting cast just wasn’t good enough. Other than their main three forwards and Rickard Rakell, who had 28 goals and 60 points, no member of the Penguins reached the 50-point milestone, resulting in the squad finishing 16th in goals per game (3.18). Pittsburgh likely would have still squeaked into the postseason had Tristan Jarry enjoyed a repeat of his 2021-22 success, but after recording a 2.42 GAA and .919 save percentage in 58 contests during that campaign, he dropped to a 2.90 GAA and a .909 save percentage in 47 starts in 2022-23. Pittsburgh also lacked an appealing alternative as Casey DeSmith posted a 3.17 GAA and .905 save percentage in 38 contests. The Penguins consequently wasted a season at a time when they’re running out of opportunities to make a Stanley Cup run in the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era.

What’s Changed? Pittsburgh made a huge splash by acquiring Erik Karlsson in exchange primarily for draft picks, though the Penguins also moved Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry and DeSmith in the process for cap purposes. Outside of that, Pittsburgh signed Alex Nedeljkovic to serve as their new backup goaltender and lured free agent defenseman Ryan Graves with a six-year, $27 million deal.

What would success look like? Getting back to the playoffs will likely involve a strong year out of Karlsson. Expecting him to get 25 goals and 101 points like he did with the Sharks in 2022-23 is overly optimistic, but a 60–70-point showing is obtainable. Between Karlsson and Letang, the Penguins should also be able to deploy two strong power-play units after finishing in the middle of the pack with a 21.7% power-play conversion rate last year. Combine that with even a modest rebound from Jarry and the Penguins would have the makings of a strong team.

What could go wrong? That’s provided that Karlsson stays healthy, which is far from certain given his lengthy injury history. Then of course there’s the fact that Crosby and Letang are 36 while Malkin is 37. How much longer can that trio really lead the charge in Pittsburgh? On top of that, Malkin being healthy has been a rarity, so even if he remains effective, expecting anything close to a repeat of his 2022-23 82-game showing would be surprising. Any significant injury to Crosby or Malkin might also push Jeff Carter into a second-line role, which is not a job the 38-year-old is still suited for based on his 29-point showing last season.

Top Breakout Candidate: With the Penguins going all-in on the present, they lack significant breakout candidates. That said, if the Penguins run into injury troubles, which is certainly plausible given the team’s age, Samuel Poulin will be one to watch as a forward who might step in and turn heads, though after missing most of 2022-23 to focus on his mental health, he’s expected to start the campaign in the AHL.


Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby showed little sign of slowing as he finished his 18th season, every one of which has come above a point per game. Crosby still possesses the vision and playmaking of an elite puck distributor. His 1.6 assist per hour of even-strength hockey was tops on the Penguins. Per All Three Zones, he was in the 99th percentile of NHL forwards with regards to high-danger passes and in-zone shot assists. While his defense took a step back from what we’ve become accustomed to, the Penguins found themselves in a lot of situations that required shootout-style approaches to the game. While the Penguins power-play had periods of frustration, Crosby is ultimately still the straw that stirs the drink on the man-advantage. Crosby still elevates every linemate he plays with based on his ability to draw attention to himself and dish no-look, last minute passes to the tape of his teammates. Crosby exhibited the same ability to hound and steal the puck as he has throughout his career last season. Expect more of the same this season and at least one more sensational moment that comes via a ridiculous backhand goal.

Evgeni Malkin

Repeated lower-body injuries may have robbed Evgeni Malkin of some of his explosive gallop through the neutral zone, but they haven’t stopped him from being one of the most consistent offensive threats in the league. In 2021-22, Malkin played in every single game and went over a point per game for the season. Like his counterpart in Crosby, most of Malkin’s game has been immune to Father Time. Last year was different for Malkin in that he shot less and passed more. Per the All Three Zones project, Malkin was in the 97th percentile of NHL forwards for primary shot assists and only in the 64th percentile for individual shot rates. Malkin’s defensive performance last season was once again not his strongest point, but it was more in line with team average than in prior years. Overall, Malkin still has the desire to take a game over. He is relentless in attack, difficult to move off the puck, and willing to take risks to elevate the play of himself and his teammates. If his increase in passing the puck holds through this year, he could achieve 800 career assists. Overall, Malkin will be the central focus of the second line and may get the boost of playing with Erik Karlsson on the blueline this season.

Jake Guentzel

The son of a great coach, Guentzel is coming off another year where he consistently exhibited a high hockey IQ and stayed a step ahead of most of his peers in terms of his offensive approach. Guentzel is a rare combination of elite playmaker and finisher as evidenced by his results in the All Three Zones project. Guentzel was in the 98th percentile for in-zone shot rates and in the 91st percentile for in-zone shot assists at even-strength. He is difficult to mark in tight spaces and uses open spaces to his advantage. The Penguins power-play has an expected-goal generation rate that is 2.63 goals per higher when Guentzel is on the ice versus when he is not. His defensive impacts have been notoriously low and bottomed out last year, but are offset by the number of chances, shots, and opportunities he creates at the other end of the ice. The Penguins routinely control the flow of the play and dominate possession when Guentzel makes an appearance. An offseason injury forced him to undergo surgery on his ankle that will cause him to miss at least a portion of the Penguins first few weeks. Overall, the Penguins will be looking at him to generate scoring chances across his entire line when he returns to the lineup.

Rickard Rakell

Rakell’s first full season with the Penguins saw him float around the top six but primarily find a home affixed to the side of Sidney Crosby. Rakell spent a lot of time in battle areas of the ice creating space for his linemates. He also garnered a lot of second and third opportunities and assisted greatly with increasing the shot volume of his line. Per the All Three Zones project, he was in the 97th percentile of NHL forwards with regard to his impact on in-zone shots. His 28 goals last season were the most he’s scored since the 2017-18 season. He found himself as a regular on the Penguins top power-play unit, especially as a viable net-front option. While no slouch defensively, this hasn’t been his hallmark and he has not killed penalties so far for head coach Mike Sullivan. He has the utility to be able to play alongside either of the top two center options in Pittsburgh due to his straightforward approach and ability to get to the difficult areas. The expectation is that he’ll be back on the top line alongside Crosby again this season, serving in a role that can both grind pucks out and forecheck effectively.

Bryan Rust

Bryan Rust’s 2021-22 season was one that saw him struggle in a variety of offensive buckets. Certainly, his finishing ability was a part of that, but he also suffered a regression in other areas of puck support ability. Rusts’ best seasons have come when he’s carrying the puck and generating opportunities off of the rush, an area where he took a step back again last season. His rush offense put him in the 46th percentile of NHL forwards per the All Three Zones project. All of these regressions saw Rust score almost a half a point per game less than the previous season and his lowest goal total since 2018-19. The good news is that he’ll have another crack inside the top six for Pittsburgh this season and potentially some power-play time as well. Rust being in the top six means he’ll also get one of Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang to aid him offensively, a duo that will certainly help Rust out from an opportunity perspective. He has strong shot totals to build off of and will have a new landscape of linemates as well.

Reilly Smith

Reilly Smith makes his way to Pittsburgh via a trade with Las Vegas that was the first official move of the new general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins Kyle Dubas. Smith was remarkably consistent from start to finish last season, netting 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games and following that up with 14 points in 22 playoff games. Smith’s biggest strengths last season were driving to high danger scoring areas and supporting the play via transition both out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone. Smith is extremely comfortable with the puck on his stick, makes sound decisions with it in transition, and should have no issue playing anywhere within Pittsburgh’s top-six forward group as a result. Early expectations are that he will make his debut flanking Evgeni Malkin, giving him a world class center to feed pucks towards in transition. Smith played on the power-play and penalty kill last season and was effective in both roles, but truly made his way on the penalty kill side, where his presence resulted in the Golden Knights having an expected goals against rate that was over one whole goal less with him on the ice. Smith will certainly get a lot of minutes in the Pittsburgh top six with a lot of talent surrounding him, His simple, north-to-south approach should be a fine addition to that group.

Lars Eller

Lars Eller is another fresh face in the Pittsburgh bottom-six as a part of Kyle Dubas’ reclamation project for that portion of his roster. Eller’s offensive skills have taken a hit as he’s aged, but his defensive impacts are still strong, and the Penguins will be hoping he can help patch up what was an otherwise porous bottom-six forward group. The data from the All Three Zones project paints Eller as a player that still maintains an above-average ability to distribute the puck and I believe we see that on video as well. Eller’s In Zone Shot Assists and High-Danger Shot Assists were both in the 73rd percentile of NHL forwards. An injury-shortened season two years ago saw his defensive impacts bottom out, but outside of that anomaly, he’s been reliably consistent in his ability to keep the opposition in check. Eller had the second highest rate of shots off of the forecheck and cycle at even-strength. He also boasted strong numbers in the bucket of assisting his defense with exiting the defensive zone, a testament to the attention he pays to that side of the ice. The Penguins won’t be asking him for any miracles as much as they need steady, consistent play that doesn’t end up in the defensive zone for the majority of the time.

Noel Accari

Noel Acciari has been acquired again by Kyle Dubas, this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins on a new three-year contract that will pay him an average of two million dollars per year. Acciari does all of the things well that you’d come to expect from a bottom-six forward. He plays with energy, hits a lot, blocks a lot of shots, and other momentum stealing skillsets. Acciari will likely play a role on the penalty-kill in Pittsburgh as well, an area that needs a rebuild after inconsistent struggles last year and a lack of a sense of urgency. Acciari, like the other players Dubas’ has brought in for the bottom six, boasts strong defensive returns and keeps the puck out of the defensive zone altogether. He is more of a puck retriever than a puck carrier but doesn’t handle the puck in an uncomfortable fashion. His pace and north-to-south approach put him in positions to generate a lot of takeaways for his team. Expect Acciari to feature for Mike Sullivan as a true utility forward that can fill in gaps up and down the lineup without causing great drop off.

Matt Nieto

Matt Nieto arrives to Pittsburgh from free agency on a new two-year contract as a part of a re-built bottom-six forward group in that is one of the reasons the Penguins were on the outside looking in last year. Nieto spent time mixed between San Jose and Colorado, but in both locations, he was a strong defensive forward and took great care of the puck. Nieto plays strong in wall battles and comes away with pucks that elongate possession. His defensive impacts were good for the 91st percentile of NHL forwards and that is felt even more on the penalty kill where he reduced Colorado’s expected goal against rates by over two goals per hour upon arriving there. Nieto is a 200-foot player that should provide a huge boost to a Penguins bottom-six that needed to be deployed in a careful and particular fashion last year. From a possession and expected goals perspective, Nieto had an uncharacteristically rough go from the perspective of controlling the play. As a member of the Sharks, he had the fourth highest rate of shots off of the forecheck and cycle per the All Three Zones project. Pittsburgh will be hoping he can replicate those results and continue his defensive impacts in their bottom six for the upcoming season.


Erik Karlsson

Erik Karlsson is coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season that produced offensive results the likes of which we have not seen in some time. He crossed the 100-point threshold in remarkable fashion and exhibited a high level of manipulation with the puck on his stick, devastating opposing skaters and goaltenders alike. In All Three Zones data, Karlsson found himself in the 100th percentile for primary assists, scoring chance assists, neutral zone shot assists, shot contributions, and defensive finishing, all at even-strength. Karlsson’s defensive impacts are notoriously poor as he’s deployed and functions as more of a “fourth forward” than a defenseman. This isn’t to say that Karlsson is inept defensively. He’s just more unavailable defensively. He has recoverability and gap control to be effective, he’s just usually off pinching somewhere or attempting to kick-start breakouts. Karlsson’s deployment in Pittsburgh should differ drastically from his deployment in San Jose as he’ll be sharing minutes with Letang. This should lessen the burden on Karlsson and give him one of Crosby or Malkin to play with on the forward side, giving him another generational talent to work with there. A repeat of 100+ points may be a big ask, but Pittsburgh can certainly provide the environment for him to make an honest attempt at it.

Kris Letang

Kris Letang is coming off a tumultuous year health-wise that ultimately ended with him receiving a Masterson Trophy for his battle against another stroke and his return to the lineup in the face of those challenges. This year, Letang will once again be a leader of both the team and the defensive group, albeit with a lot of fresh and notorious faces surrounding him. Letang’s previous legacy partner in Brian Dumoulin has moved on as the magic between them had clearly expired. Letang is still an offensive-minded defenseman who supports the play offensively among the league’s best defensemen. This is evidenced by his offensive impacts falling in the 90th percentile of NHL defensemen last season. On the flip side, Letang struggled defensively and his decision making around joining in on offense was not as sound as previous seasons. This year, he will have a new partner in one of Ryan Graves or Marcus Pettersson and that should afford him an ability to act more innately on his instincts. Letang’s role on the power-play is now a question mark with the arrival of Erik Karlsson. Overall, despite age making its impact on his results, Letang is still an above-average offensive talent that can bolster a power-play and is still elite at retrieving pucks successfully in his defensive zone.

Marcus Pettersson

Marcus Pettersson was a calming influence on the Penguins blueline last season and posted strong defensive returns that by and large flew under the radar. Pettersson’s competence defensively coupled with his ability to calmly and effectively handle and shoot the puck put his projected WAR value for the season in the 91st percentile of NHL defensemen. That is top line quality results and impressive given Pettersson’s unassuming nature on the ice. A strong skater with sound understanding of the game, Pettersson uses a long reach and gap control to manage zone entries well. Per the All Three Zones project, his success rate on zone exits put him in the 70th percentile among defensemen, a trait you do not usually see among defensive-minded players. Pettersson showcased a lot of ability in distributing the puck last season as he reached a career high of 28 assists. His even-strength primary assist rate was in the 98th percentile of NHL defensemen. He led the Penguins in blocks and had the second lowest expected goals against rate on the team. The assumption is that Pettersson may draw the assignment to play with Erik Karlsson, which will certainly be a test of his ability to maintain the defensive blueline and keep strong on-ice results in his own end.

Ryan Graves

Ryan Graves arrives in Pittsburgh via free agency, the first of two big moves from Kyle Dubas to revamp his defensive unit. Graves is a steady, consistent performance that typically showcases his best results defensively, although last year that was a different story. Graves is not a physical defenseman by any means but can handle the puck and use his stick to break up chances effectively. He traditionally has a low number of hits and last season per the All Three Zones project he was the definition of league average regarding his ability to exit the defensive zone with possession and retrieve the puck successfully. Graves is an active shooter that routinely pinches deep to garner high-quality scoring chances. His puck distribution isn’t his strong suit, and he was in the 8th percentile among defensemen with regard to his ability to set up scoring chances with passes. Graves will likely be tasked with playing alongside Kris Letang and while that will certainly come with an increase of quality of competition, it should also lower the burden on him offensively. Overall, expect Graves to participate in every zone, support transition well, and provide a safe presence to the top six of the Penguins defensive group.


Tristan Jarry

The Pittsburgh Penguins finally did it – during the 2022-23 season, the perennial playoff team fell out of contention and missed the postseason for the first time since 2006, with starter Tristan Jarry’s “good enough” performance not quite hitting that milestone for the first time since he took over as the team’s number one. He wasn’t actively bad, but the aging core Pittsburgh trotted out combined with some ill-timed injuries and some surprisingly strong performances in the Metro out of Long Island and New Jersey to push both Pennsylvania teams onto the golf course a little early this year.

Jarry does an effective job bouncing back every time he puts up a year of slightly underwhelming numbers, and he’s never truly dropped into actively bad territory – which is good news for Penguins fans who hope the team will be able to retool and return to contention this year. But curiously enough, Jarry will have to head out into the crease this year as the far more reliable option – because he has a reclamation project in Alex Nejedlkovic joining him as his new tandem partner following Casey DeSmith’s departure.

Projected starts: 55-60