Pens Don’t Need Erik Karlsson To Keep Making Progress

They’re on the right track in the initial stages of the Kyle Dubas roster remake. Making a big splash just to make one won’t necessarily make the Pens better now or later.

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The bottom six has been reconfigured as anticipated and the Penguins continue to flirt with Erik Karlsson in their ongoing efforts to prop up Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

But the reconfiguring isn’t likely to dramatically impact the bottom six’s ability to provide secondary scoring and Karlsson remains a maybe.

So what have they really gained?

Maybe just this:

The Pens, in the wake of new President of Hockey Operations Kyle Dubas’ initial foray into roster restructuring, are a better team defensively.

And that’s something they absolutely, positively had to address.

If the Pens are really serious about getting back into the playoffs or winning a postseason series for the first time since 2018, let alone trying to cobble together one more Stanley Cup run with the Big Three, they’ll rededicate themselves to trying to keep the puck out of their net.

That’s a component of playing championship-caliber hockey that’s always been near and dear to head coach Mike Sullivan.

But part of the problem in recent seasons, and throughout last season in particular, has been Sullivan’s messages related to defending and being difficult to play against no longer resonate.

The good news is Sullivan’s job has gotten a little easier with regard to such continued preachings.

The Pens have acquired a couple of players this offseason who won’t have to be told twice.

“I take it personally getting scored on,” grinding forward Noel Acciari announced during his first Zoom session with local media.

He said it twice, perhaps as a hedge against someone unintentionally having had him on “mute” the first time.

Acciari clearly wanted at least that much to be heard.

“For me, defense first,” he emphasized. “Obviously, everyone wants to score goals. I want to do that, too.

“But at the same time, you win games keeping pucks out of the net.”

Sullivan could have been forgiven if he felt as if he needed a cigarette upon hearing that.

This week, it was defenseman Ryan Graves’ turn.

Graves, a five-year vet, is something of an NHL dinosaur.

He’s more than competent offensively and capable of contributing at that end.

But he’s first and foremost a defenseman who’s dedicated to actually playing defense.

“As far as taking chances, things like that, my game is not super-high risk,” Graves maintained this week. “I’ll be more of a steady force.”

That makes one of those on the blueline.

Karlsson, despite his three Norris Trophies, isn’t that.

And he might not arrive, should the Penguins manage to acquire him, as advertised offensively.

The 101 points he amassed last season earned him his third Norris. But they were also an outlier for a player who had averaged 52.75 games played and 35.5 points over the previous four campaigns (two of those were COVID shortened, but we’re still not talking about Bobby Orr).

Karlsson is 33, he’s defensively deficient and in all likelihood he would require way too much of an investment in draft capital in the event a trade is consummated, which would contradict Dubas’ stated goal of trying to improve the team now and at the same time secure a future that eventually won’t include Crosby, Malkin and Letang.

Karlsson wouldn’t bring the team the teeth it needs, more of the grit or the sand the Penguins lack.

Acciari has, as has Graves. And Lars Eller and Matt Nieto.

And so has Reilly Smith, an excellent two-way forward with a championship pedigree.

None of those additions qualified as sexy (Smith and Graves are underrated that way), but they’ve all made the Penguins better.

That’s the direction in which Dubas and the Pens need to keep heading.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section