Gameday 1: First

The 2023-24 regular season schedule for the Pittsburgh Penguins starts in unique fashion. It has been 53 years to the day since the Penguins, on opening night, hosted (let alone faced) the team that drafted the first overall pick the prior summer. On October 10, 1970, Pittsburgh hosted Gilbert Perreault and the Buffalo Sabres in the Sabres’ first ever game in the NHL, a 2-1 victory for the visitors. Perreault scored his first career NHL goal that night, the first of 512 the left-handed center from Victoriaville, Quebec would score in his Hall of Fame career, and it was the game-winner on the power-play no less. Neither team was particularly good at the time of course, it being just Pittsburgh’s third season in the NHL, but Buffalo was only five years away from making its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the Penguins needed another twenty years to get there. (Some interesting tidbits: that season’s Pittsburgh team had a Cam Newton, a Jim Morrison, and their leading scorer’s last name was…Hextall.)

Unlike those nascent Buffalo Sabres, the Chicago Blackhawks are a storied franchise in the history of the National Hockey League. One of the Original Six teams, they have won six Stanley Cups, including three between 2010 and 2015. Their periods of irrelevance have been few and far between, as highlighted by the fact that they made the playoffs all but one time from the 1958-59 season to the 1996-97 season. Afterwards they would make the playoffs once in the next ten seasons, then boom!, back to relevance with a Conference Finals appearance in 2009 then the first of their last three championships in 2010. It seems unavoidable that they will return to relevance again soon after missing the playoffs five out of the last six season. But they are also quite down on their luck, with the departures of their captain Jonathan Toews, their second-all-time leading scorer Patrick Kane, and the off-the-ice turmoil with the Kris Beach drama and the death of their owner, Rocky Wirtz. Either way, the Blackhawks are likely keen to turn the page on the previous era and look forward to the new one.

Sup Rook

Enter Connor Bedard, considered by many to be the most recent once-in-a-generation-type player on par with Jack Hughes, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid. By the accounts I’ve read about Bedard, he’s most like McDavid in the sense that it is his extreme offensive talent that will benefit Chicago the most. Also like McDavid, Bedard is not particularly strong defensively, much like most rookies whose strength is producing offense, but he is also lightning fast and a gifted stick-handler as well. The NHL never really got the chance to reap the marketing benefits of the primes of Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, which is why they appear to be leaning heavily into this particular matchup featuring two first overall draft picks. Bedard’s first season likely won’t see much winning, but considering that Chicago has mountains of salary cap space available to them next offseason, it probably won’t be long before the Blackhawks do indeed start turning their way back up the Central Division standings.

Unlike their peers from Illinois, Pittsburgh is not ready to throw in the towel on their most recent championship era. Last season was a personal success for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both able to play all 82 games together for the first time in their careers, but it was all for naught as the duo also missed out on the playoffs for the first time in their time together with the Penguins. The failure to make the playoffs led the to firing of general manager (and former Penguin Bryan’s son) Ron Hextall as well as president of hockey operations Brian Burke. Their tenure was as brief as it was aimless, and I think that bled into the spirits of the players and coaches. No one wants to work for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and it was pretty evident by both his actions and inactions that Hextall was a bad hire. It led to a depressed performance by Pittsburgh last year, and I think we were all relieved to see Hextall given the boot.

Conversely, the excitement of a new season under new leadership is palpable. The Penguins hired Kyle Dubas, fresh off his departure from the Toronto Maple Leafs, initially to replace Burke but ultimately replacing both of them. Dubas immediately set to work undoing effectively all of Hextall’s efforts, rebuilding the roster straight away as well as resupplying the minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He saved the trademark big splash move for Crosby’s birthday, trading for reigning Norris winner Erik Karlsson in a three-team move with San Jose and Montreal. There’s plenty to look forward to but there are still the same questions that have lingered through the last several years. There’s a lot of skepticism that the new-look bottom six will do their part as far as providing offense. Most importantly however is whether Tristan Jarry will settle into a more consistent (and hopefully quality) role now that he’s 28 years old and has a new five-year contract.

Have the Penguins done enough this offseason to re-inject themselves back into the playoff (and Stanley Cup) discussion? There’s no doubt in my mind that they should make the playoffs, but that expectation has been the case since 2008, and last year they fell just short. More to the point, the road to the Finals has gotten tougher: there’s at least two teams in the Metropolitan Division who are arguably deeper than Pittsburgh, and that’s just one division. Ideally what happens for the Penguins is (a.) they avoid any major injuries or health problems (nearly impossible); (b.) Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic (yes I spelled it correctly first time!) are at least a top-ten goaltending tandem; (c.) a third line capable of consistently providing offense comes together; and (d.) the expected goals turn into actual goals. It typically takes a month for a team to settle into its skin in a new season, so it’ll be interesting to see where the Penguins are come Veteran’s Day.