Previewing the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Penguins made a splash when they sent Phil Kessel to Arizona. In return, they got Alex Galchenyuk, who is talented yet enigmatic at times. They also signed Brandon Tanev in free agency over the course of the summer. Are they better on the ice? Not really. Kessel had picked up 70, 90 and 82 points over the last three years so it’s going to be tough to replace that production. Did Kessel have to be traded to keep peace in the Pens locker room? Yes.

Strengths: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the elite players in the NHL. Crosby picked up 100 points last season for the first time since 2013-14 campaign. He’s showing no signs of slowing down. As for Malkin, he’s coming off a bad year by his standards, but the 32-year-old still managed to score 72 points in 68 contests. Look for the 33-year-old to have a bounce back year. The Penguins are still rock-solid down the middle.

Weaknesses: The defense still has a ton of question marks. Kris Letang is a great player, but can he stay healthy for an entire 82-game season? The 32-year-old has missed significant time over the last few years. This group also has Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson, who combine to make $7.25 million per year. That’s a lot of money for a team that’s always flirting with the upper limit of the salary cap. Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin will need to do some heavy lifting.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. Mike Sullivan has had plenty of success during his tenure as head coach, but things seemed to get stale in Pittsburgh last year. They’ve shaken things up by getting rid of Kessel. What happens if that doesn’t work? The Pens made the playoffs last year, but they went out with a whimper, as they were swept by the Islanders in the first round. Sullivan has to find a way to push the right buttons if he’s going to stick around for a few more years.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on Malkin, Galchenyuk and Tanev. We’ve talked about Malkin’s struggles last year. On paper, it wasn’t a terrible year, but a player with that much talent should dominant on a nightly basis. He’s already admitted to being a little out of shape last year, which means he should start the season in great physical condition so he doesn’t have to cheat as much offensively. Malkin is one the leaders of this team. They’ll go as far as he’s willing to take them.

Galchenyuk has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He’s expected to get a shot to play on a line with Malkin, which means he’s going to have to be one of the key contributors on his team offensively. We know he has all the ability in the world, but he has just one 30-goal season to show for it. The Arizona Coyotes gave up on him after just one season, so he has something to prove now that he’s on his third team in three years. He has to replace Kessel’s production.

Tanev isn’t nearly as talented as the other two players on this list, but he’s in the spotlight because of the contract he signed with the Pens this summer. The 27-year-old got a six-year, $21 million deal. That raised some eyebrows on July 1st. Tanev had 14 goals and 15 assists in 80 games with the Winnipeg Jets last year. He’s not the kind of player that’s going to score much, but he’ll give an honest effort and bring a physical element to the team. Will that be enough to justify the contract? We’ll see.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. The Penguins will figure out a way to finish second or third in the Metropolitan Division. There’s still a lot of talent on the roster. Their better days may be behind them, but you can’t count them out just yet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.