The Pittsburgh Penguins have several big decisions to make regarding their roster for next season.
In addition to their two superstar free agents, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the Penguins also are attempting to re-sign Rickard Rakell, Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, and Evan Rodrigues. The team is likely to be much different than the team fielded in Game 7 against the New York Rangers.
One area that needs to be a huge priority this offseason is revamping the second line. Here are several ways they can do this.
The past few postseasons, the Penguins have lacked the potent 1-2 punch that past successful teams possessed. First among the many reasons for this is the second line's lack of cohesion. The left and right wing have been a carousel of forwards all getting turns, finding minimal levels of success.
Establishing a trusted second line will be most essential for the 2022-2023 Penguins. They already have one of the most reliable and talented first lines in Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust, and reaching that level of trust again in the second line is crucial. Re-signing Evgeni Malkin is the first domino that needs to fall. After all, a second line is nothing without a strong center. And while there are some younger options on the market, Malkin is the best player available.
General Manager Ron Hextall stated ownership and management are in consensus on trying to win the Stanley Cup again, which makes retaining Malkin the smartest move. After that, management needs to focus on finding wingers that supplement and benefit Malkin's game as he enters his late 30's.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has tried players such as Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen, and Evan Rodrigues on the wing of the second line with little success. The biggest problem in deploying these forwards is that Evgeni Malkin needs what these players don't provide: a net front presence.
Coach Sullivan often opts to pair Malkin with speedy and skilled wingers that try to get the puck behind the defense. It is a way to offset the east-west style of play that Malkin can default back to, which goes against the basics of coach Sullivan's system.
While that is admirable and Sullivan's system is an effective one when working, it isn't helping their generational hockey player score any goals if they can't get him the puck after they dump it in.
The Penguins lack a player to pair with Malkin who plays best in front of the net and has capable puck possession skills, but they desperately need one. The team will have to search for external options to help bring this second line back to life.
Free agency has several players that fit this description, such as Andrew Copp or Valeri Nischuskin. Both players enjoyed stellar, yet under the radar, career-high seasons. Copp put up 21 goals and 53 points, while Nischuskin scored 25 goals and registered 52 points.
What stands out most about these players is that they get to the net with ease. They may not be the biggest or strongest players on the ice, but they use their frame to their advantage and get rewarded for it. Both players may price themselves out of the Penguin's market come free agency, but acquiring a player like that adds a new layer to the second line that it sorely lacks.
A layer that will only allow Malkin more time and space to collect points.
An interesting in-house option to help this revamping of the second line is to resign Rakell. His 19 regular season games were excellent for the Penguins, but injury prevented his chance to find any sort of chemistry with Malkin in the postseason. Still, Rakell has excellent hands and an excellent shot, possesses the puck as well as any other forward on the Penguins, and would make Pittsburgh's top six much more dangerous.
Insiders are predicting Rakell is seeking somewhere around $5.5 million per season in his next contract, which may be too rich for Pittsburgh's blood. If they can find a way to bring him back on a hometown discount, they will be a better team for it.
The Penguins have lots of work to do in the offseason to improve this team. Hopefully, with a few moves in free agency or a trade, they could go from being overly reliant on their top line, to a dynamic top six group of forwards. If they want to compete for another championship next season, they better figure it out.
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