Penguins season preview: Carter production needed with Crosby, Malkin out

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Coach: Mike Sullivan (seventh season)

Last season: 37-16-3; first place in MassMutual East Division, lost to New York Islanders in Stanley Cup First Round

3 KEYS

1. Surviving injuries to top centers

The Penguins will be without centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to start the regular season. Crosby had surgery on his left wrist Sept. 8 and was expected to need at least six weeks to recover. Malkin will miss at least the first two months of the regular season recovering from June 4 knee surgery. Crosby, who had been skating on his own before practices to begin training camp, could return within a week of Pittsburgh opening its regular season against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 12. Jeff Carter scored 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in 14 regular-season games after the Penguins acquired him in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on April 12 and likely would fill in at first-line center with Crosby out, then take Malkin’s spot on the second line until he returns.

2. Goalie concerns

Tristan Jarry had a 3.18 goals-against average and .888 save percentage in six Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Islanders, after he had a 2.75 GAA and .909 save percentage in 39 regular-season games. Jarry said he used the offseason to improve from his subpar postseason performance and expects new goalie coach Andy Chiodo to help his progression. Casey DeSmith, Jarry’s backup, had surgery June 10 to repair a bilateral core muscle injury but has been a full participant at training camp. DeSmith arguably outperformed Jarry last season, going 11-7-0 with a 2.54 GAA and .912 save percentage in 20 games.

3. Increased physicality

After being outmatched physically in the series against the Islanders, the Penguins wanted to get stronger in the offseason. First-line left wing Jake Guentzel, who was second on the Penguins behind Crosby with 23 goals and 57 points, said he spent much of the summer in the weight room after being limited to two points (one goal, one assist) in six playoff games. Pittsburgh signed forward Brock McGinn to a four-year contract July 28, likely to fill a hole in the bottom six after Brandon Tanev was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Without sacrificing speed, the Penguins would like to use added strength to get past an opening-round postseason series for the first time since 2018.

Video: Pittsburgh Penguins 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

Radim Zohorna and Evan Rodrigues are the two most likely candidates to fill in at second-line center with Crosby and Malkin out to start the season. Zohorna, who scored four points (two goals, two assists) in eight games as a rookie last season, has skated in Malkin’s spot with left wing Jason Zucker and right wing Kasperi Kapanen since the start of training camp. Rodrigues previously has played in the top-six forward group, including right wing on the top line.

Most intriguing addition

In addition to adding physicality, McGinn has said he would like to improve from scoring 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in 37 games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season. McGinn has spent most of training camp in Tanev’s spot at right wing with center Teddy Blueger and left wing Zach Aston-Reese. Tanev averaged 0.22 goals and 0.50 points per game last season. The Penguins would like for McGinn match or surpass those numbers.

Biggest potential surprise

During training camp Zucker described his play last season as “awful.” He scored 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 38 games, mostly at second-line left wing. He had 67 shots on goal last season, but Zucker said he plans to be more active in 2021-22. He’s also been encouraged to shoot more by Sullivan, who said Zucker’s at his best when playing aggressively.

Ready to break through

Defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph got a taste of the NHL last season, scoring five points (one goal, four assists) in 16 games, and he also scored 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) in 23 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. But the 22-year-old could be on the verge of taking a permanent spot in Pittsburgh after spending the first few days of training camp on a pair with Kris Letang. The two had skated together throughout the offseason.

Fantasy Sleeper

Joseph (undrafted on average in fantasy) could become a regular in the lineup this season after the departure of defenseman Cody Ceci (signed with Edmonton Oilers). Joseph averaged 0.57 points per game in the AHL last season, up from 0.33 (17 points in 52 games) in 2019-20 and could emerge as Pittsburgh’s second-best fantasy defenseman behind Letang. — Pete Jensen

Projected lineup

Jake Guentzel — Jeff Carter — Bryan Rust

Jason Zucker — Evan Rodrigues — Kasperi Kapanen

Zach Aston-Reese — Teddy Blueger — Brock McGinn

Danton Heinen — Brian Boyle — Dominik Simon

Brian Dumoulin — Kris Letang

Mike MathesonJohn Marino

Marcus PetterssonChad Ruhwedel

Tristan Jarry

Casey DeSmith

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