ELMONT, N.Y. — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2023-24 season came to an end Wednesday with a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders at UBS Arena.

For the better part of three weeks, they flirted with the postseason, staging an 8-2-3 charge to complete the campaign, falling a few points short of the final playoff spot available in the Eastern Conference.

But in all reality, the Penguins’ season was over well before that. Not because of any one particular game or loss. But a composite of several unappetizing and frustrating defeats or shortcomings ultimately did them in before their valiant but futile surge in recent weeks.

“It’s not a great feeling,” now-retired Penguins forward Jeff Carter said March 26 in PPG Paints Arena. “That’s for sure. At the end of the day, we did it to ourselves. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us.”

Sorrow is certainly not the primary emotion being directed at the Penguins on the first day of their early offseason.

Frustration, confusion and a lot of other terms involving four-letter words might be more appropriate.

After missing the playoffs in the late stages of the 2022-23 regular season, Penguins ownership — Fenway Sports Group — swept out previous management (president of hockey operations Brian Burke, general manager Ron Hextall and assistant general manager Chris Pryor) and installed Kyle Dubas as president of hockey operations on the first day of June.

Dubas had a difficult task of trying to thread a needle of operating with an aging core group of players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and attempted a quick retooling to get the team back into a position for a Stanley Cup run.

Defenseman Erik Karlsson — acquired via a blockbuster trade in August — was the biggest component of that renovation. One of the greatest offensive weapons off the blue line in NHL history, Karlsson was largely expected to serve as — to use a computer programming term — a patch that would rewrite all the coding of a stale offensive attack, especially on the power play.

While the team’s five-on-five play, particularly with Karlsson, was more than adequate, the power play was nothing short of hideous. With a handful of games remaining elsewhere in the NHL on the regular season schedule, the Penguins entered Thursday in 30th place with a conversion rate of 15.3% (to say nothing of the league-worst 12 short-handed goals they allowed).

In 82 games during the 2023-24 season, Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson had 56 points (11 goals, 45 assists).

Based on how Dubas outlined things following the trade deadline, Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Karlsson will remain in place going into the 2024-25 season. But no one else seems like a guaranteed to return.

Especially in net.

Tristan Jarry — whom Dubas made a priority to re-sign last offseason to a five-year contract (a process that included a personal visit to Jarry’s home in Edmonton, Alberta) — struggled so badly throughout March that coach Mike Sullivan opted to entrust journeyman Alex Nedeljkovic with starts in the team’s final 13 games of the regular season during the Penguins’ desperate push for the playoffs.

Jarry, who has never won a playoff series as a starter in his eight-year career, was entrusted to serve as this team’s franchise goaltender for the golden years of Crosby, Malkin and Letang in July.

Only nine months later, he wasn’t trusted enough to get a single start — due in some small part to an illness — when the team absolutely needed wins to reach the playoffs. To punctuate Jarry’s declining stature, he was a spectator for a meaningless season-ending road game against the Islanders on Wednesday.

With prospect Joel Blomqvist, a native of Finland, putting the finishing touches on a strong first professional season in North America with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, the Penguins have at least one appetizing internal option should they opt to move on from Jarry.

As for Nedeljkovic, he clearly earned the trust of coaches and management while largely playing on a “prove-it” one-year contract worth $1.5 million he signed last summer.

Forward Jeff Carter (No. 77) of the Penguins leaves the ice after the game against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York on Wednesday. Penguins goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic is a pending unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason.

Beyond the crease, there is no shortage of underachievers with large contracts.

The most notable of that motley crew is defenseman Ryan Graves.

As the Penguins’ most prominent free agent signing in 2023, Graves is signed through 2029. No other member of the franchise is under contract beyond 2028.

Expected to be a defensive stalwart, Graves often looked overwhelmed by the Penguins’ otherwise offensively aggressive system.

Dubas has routinely endorsed Graves, especially since he was the one who extended an ample six-year contract to the defenseman. It’s reasonably sound to suggest Graves can improve with more experience as a member of the Penguins. If nothing else, he likely can’t be worse.


Tim Benz: Penguins leave management with one last reality check to end 2023-24 season
These 10 losses cost the Penguins critical points en route to missing the playoffs again
Penguins' Jeff Carter retiring after 19-year NHL career

Up front, forward Reilly Smith was largely unimpressive after being acquired via trade from the Vegas Golden Knights in June while Rickard Rakell, a carryover from Hextall’s tenure, disappointed in the second year of a six-year contract he signed in 2022.

While trade clauses exist for all of these players and could impede potential deals, they don’t make such transactions impossible.

Forward Michael Bunting, the primary return in the blockbuster trade that sent popular forward Jake Guentzel to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 7, offered plenty of intrigue as Malkin’s linemate once he got acclimated to his new surroundings. A favorite of Dubas’ going back to their days with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, Bunting figures to be part of the solution in 2024-25.

The same could be said for veteran forward Bryan Rust who established a new career high with 28 goals while continuing to provide a little bit of everything as a first-line right winger.

Third-line center Lars Eller largely lived up to the parameters of his two-year contract worth $2.45 million a season by producing 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 82 games. Beyond the base offensive figures, Eller served as a reliable veteran presence in a variety of capacities, including on both special teams units.

Spare parts forwards such as Noel Acciari, Jansen Harkins and Matt Nieto occasionally provided contributions, but injuries largely pockmarked their individual seasons.

Penguins forward Drew O’Connor appeared in 79 games during the 2023-24 season and scored 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists).

Further down the trough, younger and newer players such as forwards Drew O’Connor and Valtteri Puustinen as well as defensemen Jack St. Ivany and Ryan Shea took advantage of opportunities provided and bolstered their cases to be regular components of the club moving forward.

The Penguins moved forward a year ago with seismic changes following the conclusion of an unacceptable 2022-23 season.

The alterations this upcoming offseason don’t figure to be quite as substantial, particularly with regards to management. But missing the postseason for the second consecutive season — something that hasn’t happened since MySpace was the dominant social media entity in the mid-2000s — will likely prompt more modifications for a franchise that professes to have the highest of aspirations.

“It’s disappointing obviously because we didn’t get to where we want to go,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said following Wednesday’s game. “It’s a much different feeling this year than it was a year ago. The stretch of hockey we played at the end of the season, dragging ourselves back into the race, I couldn’t have been more proud of the group. So, from that standpoint, it’s a much different feeling.

“Obviously, we don’t want to be put in the situation that we put ourselves in. And there are lessons learned there for all of us. That’s the part that’s the hard part that we have to take ownership for. And we will.”

Seth Rorabaugh is a TribLive reporter covering the Pittsburgh Penguins. A North Huntingdon native, he joined the Trib in 2019 and has covered the Penguins since 2007. He can be reached at srorabaugh@triblive.com.