Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Three questions for you to ponder as we look ahead to the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins…
1. Which Kris Letang will the Penguins get?
Perhaps one of the more disappointing developments for the Penguins in 2017-18 was the performance of top defenseman Kris Letang. His return to the lineup after missing most of the 2016-17 season (including all of the playoffs) was supposed to be a huge boost to a team that had won the previous two Stanley Cups.
When Letang is on top of his game he is one of the best, most versatile defenders in the entire league with his swift skating and ability to take over a game from the back end.
For whatever reason, he was not that player in 2017-18.
The Penguins — and Letang — knew there would be an adjustment period early in the season as he returned to the lineup from another significant injury, but he never really seemed to be comfortable at any point during the year as his performance was marred by inconsistency.
Overall, it was probably one of the worst single seasons of his NHL career.
It should not happen again.
Despite his struggles there is reason to believe he will bounce back (great possession numbers, the fact he will be a full year removed from the injury that sidelined him, just getting a fresh start) and be closer to the player he’s been throughout most of his career. If he is able to do that it would be a massive swing for the Penguins’ defense because there are only a handful of defenders in the NHL capable of reaching the level that Letang does when he is at his best.
2. Will Matt Murray bounce back?
Almost no goalie in the NHL has had a start to their career like the one Matt Murray has had, winning two Stanley Cups while he was still technically considered a rookie.
After the Penguins traded Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of the expansion draft process, Murray had his first chance to be the Penguins’ full-time starting goaltender from the start of the season.
It turned out to be a difficult season for him on and off the ice.
His .907 save percentage was one of the lowest marks in the NHL, while his year was interrupted by injury and the sudden passing of his father during the season.
His struggles carried over to the playoffs, where he had been money the previous two seasons as the Penguins were eliminated in the second round by the Washington Capitals.
Even though he’s been around for parts of three seasons now it’s important to remember that Murray is still only 24 years old and has played in fewer than 160 NHL games (including playoffs). In that limited time he has already compiled a pretty impressive resume that includes a pair of championships, and even with his down year in 2017-18, an overall save percentage of .918 in both regular season and playoffs combined. Among goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch, that .918 save percentage is 10th in the league. Overall, the early performance is strong even if the sample size is still small.
Now he has to show that the 2017-18 season was the one that was the outlier.
3. Will Derick Brassard be worth the price the Penguins paid?
General manager Jim Rutherford made another blockbuster trade when he landed Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators in a massive three-team trade with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights. It resulted in the Penguins giving up a lot of assets, but Brassard was supposed to be the final piece in the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat.
It did not go exactly as planned.
While Brassard was, for the most part, fine for the Penguins, he did not really make the massive impact on the scoresheet that was expected when he was acquired. That resulted in him facing some heat for his performance and probably lowered expectations for him this season.
The crazy thing about all of it is that Brassard’s performance wasn’t as bad as it was perceived to be. Between the regular season and playoffs he recorded 12 points in 26 games (around a 40-point pace over 82 games) and helped create some great chances in the playoffs. He just did not finish or convert on most of them. While that can be frustrating for the team and fans it’s still better than not creating any chances, and it at least offers the hope that he can be even better this season.
There is always an adjustment period for a player joining a new team — especially mid-season — and you probably shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions if there is not an immediate impact.
Because of the conditions on the trade, the Penguins are only on the hook for a $3 million cap hit for Brassard this season, and with the the return of Riley Sheahan and the additions of Matt Cullen and Derek Grant in free agency the Penguins will enter the season with a ton of depth down the middle after their big-two of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That depth could result in Brassard getting some time on the wing on one of the top two lines, but his best value to the team is still probably going to be as the third center behind Crosby and Malkin with Sheahan in the fourth spot to help create the matchup problems that made the team so difficult to beat in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.