When Kyle Dubas takes control of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey operations department, he’ll enter a situation that seems less than ideal.
He is taking over a team that just missed the playoffs, but there’s no logical road to a rebuild. While the club has some of the NHL’s top veteran stars, the Penguins don’t project to be among the league’s elite in the near term.
Zooming out, Pittsburgh is a team that just produced the 19th-best points total in the league with a negative goal differential. Its top-six forwards by ice time had an average age of 31.5 without anyone under the age of 28. Its top-four defensemen’s average age was 31.8.
The only relative youngster in the group was a six-year veteran in Marcus Pettersson (26) — a stay-at-home guy who’s never topped two goals or 25 points in a season.
As a rule of thumb, being that old with results that unimpressive is daunting — and there’s no obvious wave of young talent on the way. The Athletic ranked Pittsburgh’s prospect pool 29th in the NHL in January.
That information makes this sound like a rough landing spot for Dubas.
There are some significant mitigating factors at play, though. One of them is named Sidney Crosby, while another goes by Evgeni Malkin. Kris Letang is worth a mention here, too.
Although the Penguins core is long in the tooth, it’s still capable of producing at an elite level.
Crosby is coming off a 93-point season, and continues to make strong contributions in every facet of the game. Malkin has been a point-per-game metronome over the past two years. Letang just ranked 10th in the NHL in average ice time, with per-game point production (0.64) in line with his career average (0.69).
All three will be at least 36 when 2023-24 starts, and building around three guys that old is normally a bad idea. Building around these specific old guys might not be.
That’s what Dubas will be tasked with doing for quite some time. Crosby is signed through 2024-25. He seems likely to remain a Penguin as long as he wants to play. Malkin’s contract doesn’t end until the 2025-26 season is over, and Letang’s deal goes through 2027-28. All three have no-movement clauses.
The good news for the former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager is that he’ll have resources at his disposal to retool around the trio — who cost a relatively reasonable $20.9 million per season.
Pittsburgh projects to have $20.2 million in cap space to play with this offseason. Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin and Tristan Jarry are the only free agents who play a significant role with the 2022-23 team.
That’s plenty of money to bring in a top-six forward, goaltender, and capable defenseman — plus Dubas could find $4.17 million in extra space if he buys out Mikael Granlund, a disastrous trade deadline addition by the previous regime.
Dubas spent much of his time in Toronto building around the edges of an entrenched core with little cap room at his disposal. It was a limitation he imposed on himself by signing John Tavares and extending the teams’ other big stars, but he often did a good job working within it. With Pittsburgh, he’ll have the opportunity to spread his wings in a way he wasn’t able to with the Maple Leafs in recent years.
That’s an appealing thought, but one thing will remain the same for Dubas. The fate of his tenure will still be tied to the effectiveness of a handful of players who don’t seem to be going anywhere. Those players are also at an age where injury and decline are significant threats.
Dubas has Hall of Fame players with skins on the wall — and enough cap flexibility to import talent around them. That’s an enviable position in a sense, but the Penguins just missed the playoffs in a year when Crosby and Malkin both played 82 games. The superstar centers have never been that durable before, and it’s unlikely to happen again.
This team has a long way to go — and the longevity of its foundation is in doubt.
Dubas is in a race against time. He might have the type of mold-breakers that allow him to win that race, but Father Time’s oft-quoted record is awfully impressive.