The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2019-20 Rewind
Record: 40-23-6 (86 points); third place in Metropolitan Division; fifth place in Eastern Conference
For most of the 2019-20 season the Penguins looked like a team that had a shot to win the Stanley Cup. The defense was improved, the goaltending was strong, the star players were playing as expected, and they were even getting some unexpected performances from the bottom of the lineup.
Then they hit a wall late in the season.
The goaltending went away, the defense regressed, Jake Guentzel was injured, and they won just three out of 11 games to end the regular season. They followed that up by losing to the Canadiens in the Toronto Qualifying Round. Dating back to the 2018 postseason, they have now won just three of their past 14 playoff games. That produced another offseason of change in Pittsburgh.
3 Most Interesting Pittsburgh Penguins
• Tristan Jarry. For the first time in 15 years the Penguins are entering a season without one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray as their starting goalie. That means for the first time in 15 years there is a ton of uncertainty with the position.
If you want to be optimistic, you can point to the fact that, yes, Jarry was an All-Star last season thanks to his great first half. That performance no doubt contributed to the three-year contract he signed this offseason. But the second half of his season was not quite as good as the All-Star first half, and he has still only played 63 NHL games with very mixed results. The potential is there, but there is still a very real question as to how good he actually is.
With Jarry and Casey DeSmith in place the Penguins have one of the league’s least experienced goaltending duos and that is something they are not quite used to. Their performance will play a big role in what this Penguins team is capable of doing this season.
• Jim Rutherford. The most active and aggressive general manager in hockey. There has never been a potential trade or roster move that he has not liked.
The roster turnover in Pittsburgh has been constant over the past three years, and usually involves players coming and going within the same year. It is never boring.
Consider this example that will melt your brain if you think about it for too long.
Halfway through the season Kahun was traded to Buffalo for forwards Conor Sheary (who had been traded by the Penguins to Buffalo two years earlier) and Evan Rodrigues. Sheary played 12 games in stop No. 2 with the Penguins before leaving as an unrestricted free agent. Rodrigues was then traded to Toronto as part of the package for Kasperi Kapanen (a player the Penguins traded five years earlier for Phil Kessel) where he was ultimately not given a qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. He then signed … in Pittsburgh.
If he thinks his team has a weakness, he will try to fix it. Usually as soon as possible.
If there is a player he wants, no cost will be too significant, whether it be a trade (Derick Brassard) or free agency (Jack Johnson, Brandon Tanev).
[Related: ProHockeyTalk’s 2020 NHL Free Agent Tracker]
If that player does not fit, he will waste no time in cutting bait and moving on. Since the start of the 2017-18 season there have been 12 instances of the Penguins acquiring a player, and then either trading them again or waiving them within a calendar year (Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick, Antti Niemi, Riley Sheahan, Jamie Oleksiak, Brassard, Derek Grant, Tanner Pearson, Erik Gudbranson, Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad).
Advice for Kapanen, Ceci, Jankowski, and Matheson: Rent, don’t buy.
What is he going to do next? I have no idea. Neither do you. Frankly, he may not even know either. That makes things interesting.
• Sidney Crosby. Well, of course he has to be one of the three most interesting players here. He is entering his age 33 season, which means he is at a point in his career where he can still be elite, but it may not be as constant or as high of a level as we are used to seeing. If healthy, you are going to get a top-15, maybe top-10 point season offensively and someone that can still control the pace of the game.
His line (presumably Guentzel and Kapanen) is going to help carry the offense. But when your franchise players start getting into their mid-30s (as is the case in Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang) you know you probably only have a few years left as a prime contender.
Does Pittsburgh’s big-three have enough magic left to lead another championship run?
This team can still be a Stanley Cup contender, and a good one. But there are several X-factors that will dictate whether or not that happens.
They need Crosby, Malkin, and Letang healthy. Jarry has to be the goalie they think he is. They need to get some kind of offense out of their third line (they need a big year from Jared McCann) to be a true contender. The Matheson-Ceci pairing has to be better than what they got out of Johnson and Schultz on the third pairing.
All of those are possible. Some are even likely. If they get them, this could still be a team you do not want to see come playoff time.
This is where the goalie situation becomes a potential issue. It is not that Jarry and DeSmith can’t do it, or are unlikely to do it, we just do not know if they will do it. Nothing sinks a good team faster than sub-par goaltending.
That, combined with another year of brutal injury luck, could put the Penguins in a tough spot to even make the playoffs in a ridiculously tough division that has five of the top-11 teams (including three of the top-seven) from the league standings a year ago. Remember, only four of those teams can make the playoffs this season.
Pointsbet – Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup odds
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