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The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2021-22 season came to an end Sunday when the New York Rangers eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs by virtue of a 4-3 Game 7 overtime defeat.
On the heels of that loss, the focus shifts toward what could be a franchise-altering offseason for a Penguins team that has reached the playoffs in each of the past 16 seasons.
While key players such as Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are set to return next season, much of the rest of the roster is in a state of flux.
As the Penguins front office tries to figure out the next steps, here is a rundown of the Pens’ key free agents, potential draft targets and outlook for 2022-23 and beyond.
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Unrestricted Free Agents
- Evgeni Malkin (F)
- Kris Letang (D)
- Bryan Rust (F)
- Casey DeSmith (G)
- Rickard Rakell (F)
- Evan Rodrigues (F)
- Brian Boyle (F)
- Louis Domingue (G)
- Nathan Beaulieu (D)
Restricted Free Agents
- Kasperi Kapanen (F)
- Danton Heinen (F)
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have all been cornerstone players for the Penguins since the 2007-08 season, but it is possible that the trio could be broken up.
Both Malkin and Letang are unrestricted free agents during the offseason, and the fact that Pittsburgh has not re-signed either of them means a significant shake-up could be in the offing.
While Malkin has over 1,100 points in his career in addition to winning three Stanley Cups, two Art Ross Trophies, one Hart Trophy and one Conn Smythe Trophy, the 35-year-old may be approaching the end of his career.
He is still around a point-per-game player when he plays, but injuries have kept him on the shelf for much of the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Letang has long been one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL with well over 600 points in 16 seasons for the Pens, but he is also getting up there in age at 35.
Other key free agents to keep an eye on are Bryan Rust, who has three straight seasons with at least 20 goals, and Rickard Rakell, who was a key trade-deadline acquisition from the Anaheim Ducks this season.
While the Penguins figure to bring some of their own free agents back, it seems inevitable that at least some will leave as well, which could put their status as a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender in question.
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The Penguins only have four picks in the entire 2022 NHL draft, but they do still possess their first-round selection.
Based on where the Pens are picking, they aren’t likely to get an instant impact player, but they can build up some quality depth for the future at any number of positions.
With Letang possibly leaving via free agency, it would make sense for the Penguins to target an offensive-minded defenseman to groom in the coming years.
Even if Letang re-signs, the Penguins need a puck-moving defenseman of the future, and Pavel Mintyukov could be that guy.
The Moscow native put up big-time production for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit during the 2021-22 season, racking up 17 goals and 45 assists for 62 points in 67 games.
He also has good size at 6’2 “and 190 pounds, and since he is only 18 years of age, he is likely to fill out even more in the coming years.
Few offensive defensemen enjoy careers as fruitful as Letang, but of anyone in the 2022 NHL draft class, Mintyukov seemingly has among the best opportunities to reach that level.
It isn’t guaranteed that Mintyukov will be available when the Pens pick, but it would be tough to pass him up if he is.
While defense is one option for Pittsburgh in the first round, restocking the cupboard up front should also be taken into consideration.
Crosby is perhaps reaching the end of the line, plus Malkin, Rust and Rakell are all free agents, so the Penguins undoubtedly need an influx of talent at forward.
One prospect who could still be on the board when the Penguins select is Austrian winger Marco Kasper.
The 6’1 “Kasper has some filling out to do with regard to his frame, but there is no question that he is a supremely skilled player with a chance to be an NHL point producer for many years to come.
In addition to putting up 13 points in 12 games for Rogle BK of the Swedish junior league, Kasper made his presence felt for Rogle BK Angelholm in the Swedish Elite League this past season as well.
Often playing against older and more experienced players, Kasper had 11 points in 46 regular-season games. He was even better in the playoffs with five points in 12 contests.
The Penguins have long had a knack for drafting and developing talented forwards, and Kasper could potentially join those ranks.
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Much of the Penguins’ 2022-23 hopes hinge on what happens in free agency and what they are able to put around the core of Crosby and Guentzel.
If Malkin, Letang, Rust and Rakell all depart, the front office will have a lot of work to do in terms of plugging holes in free agency and through trade.
Aside from Crosby and Guentzel, the top returning scorer for the Pens is set to be veteran forward Jeff Carter who finished with just over 40 points, which speaks to just how much production could be lost.
One major positive is that goaltender Tristan Jarry and most of the defense corps aside from Letang is under contract for next season, so there should at least be some continuity there.
Although the Pens haven’t won a Stanley Cup since winning their second in a row in 2017, there seems seemingly always a belief that Pittsburgh can win it all due to having multiple players who have done it before.
Many of those players could be gone next season, which means fans may have to temper expectations for the first time in many years.