After a team loses four straight opening round playoff series, changes are inevitable. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no different, as they have transformed their blue line over the summer. However, one thing that has remained identical to last season is the top of the forward lineup.
Offensive production wasn't the cause of the Penguin's early playoff departure this past postseason, which likely factored into their retention. Discussion surrounding which players will flank Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are already heating up. With that in mind, let's rank the Penguin's top wingers heading into this season.
5. Kasperi Kapanen
The most recent transaction for the Penguins was re-signing Kasperi Kapanen to a two-year extension. Coming off of a rough season, Kapanen was scheduled to go to arbitration with the team later this week but signed for the same amount he made on his previous contract.
If he can regain his confidence and return to what the Penguins had hoped last year, Kapanen will easily be the best player in the Penguin's bottom six. Not to mention the 25-year-old brings speed to whichever line he plays. While the contract is an overpay for a player who hasn't produced, Kapanen is the only depth winger capable of bumping up to play in the top six in case of an injury.
4. Jason Zucker
Jason Zucker is in a similar situation to Kapanen, coming off a disappointing season. The primary difference is that Zucker's issues stemmed from injury woes. Over the past two seasons, the 30-year-old winger has missed 59 combined games.
When healthy, Zucker has struggled to show the scoring prowess he was acquired to bring to the lineup. However, without the puck, Zucker may be one of the best players on the team. His forechecking and backchecking abilities are unmatched in the top six not named Sidney Crosby. Zucker's physicality forces turnovers and creates chances for the star players around him. If he can regain his scoring touch and remain healthy, Zucker will be an integral part of the Penguin's offense next season.
3. Bryan Rust
The off-season began with Bryan Rust signing a long term extension to remain in Pittsburgh. Of all the moves made this summer, this may be the biggest win for Penguins general manager Ron Hextall. Getting a top scoring threat like Rust for $5.12 million is a tremendous move by Hextall.
Coming off his best playoff performance since the 2017 cup run, Rust is a pivotal swingman for the Penguin's top-six. He is one of the few wingers to have the capability of excelling with both Crosby and Malkin without missing a beat.
Rust is heading into the season on the wrong side of 30, but his usage could be the most alarming issue. His scoring numbers dropped following the trade for Rickard Rakell last season. Not due to Rakell's presence, but because Rust spent more time on the penalty kill in the absence of Zach Aston-Reese.
If the Penguins allow Rust to focus solely on 5v5 and powerplay time, Rust may be able to eclipse the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. However, if the team needs him to play heavy penalty kill minutes, Rust's production may take a dip.
2. Rickard Rakell
Last season's trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rakell is returning for the next six seasons. The bad news is that the back half of that deal may not look great, but for next season it's a great addition. It took a few games to get his feet underneath him, but Rakell quickly became a fixture on the Penguin's top line with Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
In 19 games with the Penguins last season, Rakell scored 13 points (4-9) and, according to Natural Stat Trick, accounted for 56 percent of the expected goals when on the ice at 5v5. A two-time 30-goal scorer with the Anaheim Ducks, Rakell is looking to eclipse that mark again in his first full season in Pittsburgh. While his straight-line speed isn't as impressive as Rust's, Rakell's natural chemistry with Crosby and Guentzel should have him edging out Rust in the lineup.
1. Jake Guentzel
There isn't much to debate about this one. Jake Guentzel may be the most talented winger to ever play significant minutes with Crosby, let alone on the current roster. Guentzel recorded his second career 40-goal season last year and finished with a career-high 84 points.
As he continues to grow into the prime of his career, a 100-point season may not be out of the realm of possibility for Guentzel next season. His accurate wrist shot and ability to find scoring areas make him one of the premiere left-wingers in the NHL. Heading into the season, Guentzel is unmatched among Penguins wingers.
Make sure you bookmark Inside the Penguins for the latest news, exclusive interviews, breakdowns and so much more!