The Pittsburgh Penguins enter the 2022/23 season with a familiar veteran group who actively chose to stick together this off-season in the hope of turning back time and having another run at a Stanley Cup.
Forwards Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, and defenceman Kris Letang could have left in free agency but all decided to return and form the Penguins' nucleus with Captain Sidney Crosby.
|NHL Season 2022/23
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|7th October 2022 - June 2023
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Crosby, 35, Malkin, 36, and Letang, 35, have played together in Pittsburgh for 17 years, winning the Stanley Cup three times (2009, 2016 and 2017). Rust, 30, joined in 2014 and was a big part of the most recent back-to-back success.
Despite rumours linking each away, Letang chose to sign a new six-year contract, Malkin a four-year deal and Rust a six-year extension.
While clearly past their primes, each continues to defy their age by producing excellent offensive numbers season upon season, leading General Manager Ron Hextall to have continued confidence in them.
After having wrist surgery in September 2021, Crosby had 84 points (31 goals, 53 assists) in 69 games last season. Letang had an NHL career-high 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists) in 78 games. Malkin returned from off-season knee surgery with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 41 games.
Forwards Rickard Rakell, Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen also signed new contracts to remain with the Penguins in the off-season.
With the aforementioned core, Pittsburgh have qualified for the playoffs in 16 straight seasons, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
While an outstanding achievement, the Crosby, Malkin and Letang era has had a constant expectation for the Penguins to challenge for the Stanley Cup and so four straight defeats in the opening-round have led to questions about whether a shake-up is needed.
Hextall refuted the suggestion after the most recent seven-game defeat to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round saying, "this group still has hockey left in them, and still has a chance to do impressive things."
In addition to relying on the core not slowing down, Pittsburgh will need 27-year-old Jake Guentzel to have another season like the one just had in which he scored 40 goals, 44 assists in 76 games. He also hit 40 goals in 2018/19, but fell to 20 and 23 before finding his superior goal-scoring touch again.
Guentzel will also be a key contributor if the Penguins group are to enjoy success together again having recorded an outstanding 34 goals, 24 assists for 58 points in 58 career playoff games.
Pittsburgh conceded the fifth least goals in the NHL regular season, but yet have decided to make changes to their back-end by trading Mike Matheson to the Montreal Canadiens for Jeff Petry and John Marino to the New Jersey Devils for Ty Smith.
After Letang, Matheson, 28, and Marin, 25, have led the offensive contribution from Pittsburgh blue-line for the past couple of seasons, but fancying something different and with wage cap restrictions in mind, GM Hextall has chosen to switch the pair for Petry, 34, and Smith, 22.
Petry has amassed 322 points (87 goals, 235 assists) in 803 regular season games with Edmonton Oilers and the Canadiens while Smith has 43 points (seven goals, 36 assists) in 114 regular season games with the Devils.
When at full strength, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan will generally know what to expect from his forwards and majority of defencemen, however there are some questions marks in net.
Number-one Tristan Jarry missed the first six games of the playoffs with a lower-body injury, returning with 26 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Rangers in Game 7.
His replacement for those games Louis Domingue has moved on to the New York Rangers leaving Casey DeSmith as back-up who had core muscle surgery in May.
Jarry (.919 save-percentage in 58 games) and DeSmith (.914 in 26) each offered the Penguins solid goaltending in the recent regular season but both will need to hold up and better those numbers and their health for Pittsburgh to have any chance of contending for the championship again.
A deep run in the playoffs is a necessity to validate Hextall's loyalty to the core. If they do fall early again, his decision to keep faith in the elder statesmen will be questioned and the organisation be forced to wonder if the lengthily extensions were a mistake.
However, history tells us to doubt Crosby, Malkin and Letang at your peril and it'd be a fairy-tale finish for the three potential Hall of Famers to lift the cup together again.