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Penguins Roster Reset: One Big Question Lingers Up Front

The Penguins' success might depend on how many can play to their ceiling

The Penguins proved in 2023-24 they are not a lost cause and can still compete for a playoff spot. There’s nothing that really has happened this summer to make anyone think otherwise.

The retort to that, though, is Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Pittsburgh front office have not totally overhauled the roster in a way that makes anyone think they are right back in the Stanley Cup discussion.

The Penguins’ direction remains difficult to fully articulate. Dubas wants to improve his roster, but he doesn’t want to do so in a way that requires moving meaningful pieces or overcommitting to bad long-term deals. The latter was especially evident in the club’s free agency foray where the Pens handed out nine one-year contracts July 1.

How do the pieces fit, though? Who ends up on Sidney Crosby’s line? Let’s try to answer those questions in the roster projection below.

Drew O’Connor — Sidney Crosby — Bryan Rust
Michael Bunting — Evgeni Malkin — Rickard Rakell
Anthony Beauvillier — Lars Eller — Jesse Puljujarvi
Blake Lizotte — Kevin Hayes — Noel Acciari

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The top six is largely set, for better or worse. There’s some O’Connor buzz which is understandable. The 26-year-old had 33 points last season, tripling his previous career high. He’s the latest in a long line of wingers who benefit from skating next to Crosby. The thing about this top six, though, is that it would look a lot better with an established goal-scoring winger riding shotgun with Crosby. Vladimir Tarasenko made a lot of sense, but he signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract with Detroit that the Penguins can’t match in their current cap situation. Maybe Beauvillier or even Hayes could get a look to Crosby’s left, as each has skill sets that theoretically could complement Crosby’s game.

The bottom six centers are potentially interchangeable if it comes down to Hayes and Eller. The latter remains a valuable piece if he still has gas left in the tank. That’s going to be the question with the 35-year-old Eller, though it’s also becoming a consideration for Hayes, an intriguing change-of-scenery candidate after a forgettable stint in St. Louis.

Marcus Pettersson — Erik Karlsson
Ryan Graves — Kris Letang
Matt Grzelcyk — Jack St. Evany

Graves is getting paid like a top-pairing defenseman, but as Dubas himself noted earlier this month, the 29-year-old never found it in his first season with the Penguins. If he can turn it around this season, the Penguins will feel much better about this group. Pettersson meshed really well with Karlsson, as most do when playing with one of the best blueliners on the planet.

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Letang, meanwhile, remains incredibly dependable on the back end. Recent injury issues appeared to be a thing of the past in 2023-24 with Letang playing in all 82 games. Expecting that again this season is a big ask, but Letang is a pro’s pro, and if there’s anyone who can help Graves find his game, it’s him.

The third pairing is a little up in the air, at least opposite Matt Grzelcyk. The Penguins gave the former Bruins D-man almost $3 million, so he’s going to play. We’ve penciled in St. Evany for now, largely just to see the BU and BC products skate together, but you’d have to imagine Mike Sullivan is open to some sort of camp competition to round out that defense corps.

Tristan Jarry
Alex Nedeljkovic

Pretty straightforward stuff, especially after the Penguins gave Alex Nedeljkovic $2.5 million per season.

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Featured image via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images