The Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting Arizona Coyotes are embarking on a season with something to prove when they meet Thursday in their mutual opener.
For Pittsburgh, that’s validation for the choice to stay the course and keep together the long-time core of centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang.
All three are in their mid-30s and have won three Stanley Cups together, but the Penguins have lost in either the first round or the qualifying round of the playoffs in the past four seasons.
“We’re older, but we’re not old,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said, underscoring the franchise’s belief that keeping the club largely intact also kept it competitive.
Crosby points out that the Penguins are still a team with speed and talent. He also gave a nod to those who might wonder if the team is going to start showing its age.
“You can say the word, ‘experience.’ That’s another word that’s been used a little bit more,” Crosby said, smiling at his use of a euphemism for older.
“I think that regardless of age, it’s a motivated group.”
What is projected as Pittsburgh’s top nine forwards are all returning players. There were some changes on defense behind the top pairing of Brian Dumoulin and Letang, with newcomers Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta expected to add some offense and size.
“We have guys that can move the puck; we have big bodies,” Letang said.
Arizona, meanwhile, is just trying to prove it belongs — in the Phoenix area, and in the general NHL conversation.
After finishing last in the Western Conference last season, the Coyotes are opening 2022-23 as nomads, playing their first six games on the road until new Mullett Arena at Arizona State is ready.
Arizona will play in the 5,000-seat venue — well below NHL standards — for at least the next three seasons while it explores building a new arena to call home.
Although preseason records aren’t worth much, it’s notable that the Coyotes went 0-6-1 in exhibition games.
Their home arena might be small, but the team itself is not. Arizona has gone heavy — that is, the lineup has several big, gritty players, some holdovers and some newcomers, with an average height of around 6-feet-2.
“It’s one of the biggest teams I’ve played on,” winger Nick Ritchie, who came in at the trade deadline last season, told the Arizona Republic. “Even some of the medium-sized guys, they play a lot bigger.
“We’re going to be the kind of team that plays hard and is hard to play against and has a little bit of nastiness.”
Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong identified forwards Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Lawson Crouse as the team’s core players — not on a level with Crosby, Malkin and Letang, but Armstrong is optimistic.
“For the most part, they took a step last year,” Armstrong told the Republic. “We’re looking for them to take another step this year. … We don’t have a tremendous amount of depth on our team, so those guys are counted on every single night to produce.”
–Field Level Media