The other dynasty. And one that might be heading the way of the Hawks more than they’d like to admit. It was something of a nothing season in The Burgh, if a 100-point season can be described that way. Maybe it can after the Pittsburgh Penguins turned out to be not much more than cannon fodder for the Islanders in the first round, and promptly rolled over for a team that rolled over to the next one to a team that rolled over for the next one. There doesn’t seem to be much forward momentum with this bunch, and it seems to be about hanging on to what they have. We know how that goes. Will it go that way for the Pens this term?
44-26-12 100 points (3rd in Metro, lost in 1st round to NYI)
3.30 GF/G (6th) 2.90 GA/G (14th)
49.6 CF% (15th) 51.5 xGF% (11th)
24.6 PP% (5th) 79.7 PK% (19th)
Goalies: As it has been, as it will be, the Penguins will trust Matt Murray with the crease. He’s been just about everything in just four seasons, barely, at the top level. He’s been a playoff hero, nothing more than tissue paper, hurt, and then revitalized and he’s barely had time to learn the street (they’re difficult there). He ended last season with a .919, which is more than acceptable, but he went the roundabout way in that he was woeful in October and November last year, then brilliant in December (.950), before evening out in the season’s second half. At 25 and his fourth full season in the NHL, this should be when he enters his prime, and if he does a lot of the other questions about the Penguins seem less daunting. Still, he’s got a clunky month or two in his locker, and this Penguins outfit probably can’t as easily survive those as past ones.
Defense: And here is where things get sticky. The Pens will still count on Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin for their top pairing, but Letang has managed a full season of work in one season out of the last eight. He’s 32 now, which is just about the time things turn for a d-man whose game was built on mobility. When he did play last year, he was nearly a point-per-game, and his metrics were glittering again, so it’s unlikely he’s going to fall off a cliff here. But the end does come quickly, as we know around these parts.
Beyond that pairing, they seem serious about running it back with Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, quite pleased with themselves they got away with using the latter after the trade deadline last season without sending the entire city into the combination of rivers. That won’t work a second time. The kid who could start to take more and more responsibility–and helped pave the way for Olli Maatta‘s immobile ass out of town–Marcus Pettersson, remains unsigned. The Zach Werenski contract should help with that, but the Penguins need him because they can’t seriously give the two monoliths in front of him second pairing minutes.
Justin Schultz is still here, or at least is when everything is attached to him, which isn’t often. He only played 29 games last year, and 63 the year before that. He’s a power play weapon when actually dressed, and provides more swiftness to cover for Johnson or Gudbranson.
If Pettersson and Schultz are healthy, there is a chance for some real spice to this blue line. If they aren’t or Pettersson takes a step back, then Guddy and JJ are going to play far too often and there are going to be guys in Hazmat suits patrolling the Penguins’ defensive zone, no matter how well Murray plays.
Forwards: Interesting group here. It’s always a boon to start with two Hall of Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the latter threw up a….well, he just threw up last year. 72 points in 68 games, which is still really good but below what you associate with him. Just 21 goals. the lowest per game mark since the Season In A Can. His metrics also took a hit, and there were a lot of nights where he was either petulant, or too lazy to even be that. He’s 33 now, and while that’s starting to age it shouldn’t be the mark where he turns into something a raccoon gets drunk off of.
The top line will still be Crosby and Jake Guentzel, with other forward to be determined. Phil Kessel and his continual mush of sadness has been shipped off to Arizona, with Alex Galchenyuk coming in return. Neither Montreal or Arizona were able to unlock what seems to be within the American with the Russian name who used to play for the Canadiens, and now it’s a question if it’s there at all (or serious questions about what is).
Another question mark is getting a full season of Nick Bjugstad. All the tools are there to be a dominant power forward, either at center or wing, and yet it’s never happened. Jared McCann seemed to fair a little better in Pittsburgh from Florida, but they’re going to need both of these guys to be more than they’ve been. Dominik Kahun could play himself into top line minutes at times, but is certainly more than enough on a bottom six. Brandon Tanev arrived in the summer to shore up that part of the roster as well. With just a couple pops from guys who haven’t popped before, this could be the usual deep crop of Penguins forwards who never stop that you’re accustomed to. But if guys like Bjugstad and McCann don’t make a move forward and Galchenyuk can’t get his face out of a mirror, then suddenly they look awfully top-heavy again.
Prediction: With Murray, Letang, Dumoulin, Crosby, and Malkin, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Penguins being bad. And if they get some luck in the health department with Schultz, Letang, and get Pettersson in the fold, you could see where they could be really good again. They need guys to do things they’ve never done before up front, but that has happened before in Pittsburgh. Then again, Derick Brassard also happened there, as did others. This is a team that seemingly could be anything. It could win the division, it could slide down into a wildcard fight with a couple injuries and stall-outs in development. They’re Cup-winning days just might be over, but they still might get a say in who does.
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