Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh’s big three of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Sidney Crosby are hoping to lead the Penguins on another deep playoff run in 2021. But do they have enough support to get it done? (Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

There’s a saying from the movie Patton that says “all glory is fleeting.” The key for sports franchises is knowing when the glory days are over, and when they can still be salvaged. For the powerhouses of the first decade after the 2005 lockout, their glory days are a thing of the past. The Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Kings have combined for zero playoff wins and two appearances in the last four seasons. The Sharks finished dead last in the West last year.

The only team in that group with significant hope of retaining glory with their championship core are the Pittsburgh Penguins. The most successful team in the NHL since that lockout (three Stanley Cups, 13 straight playoff appearances from 2007-19) has lost a lot of luster. A failed three-peat due to a second-round exit to their traditional red-headed step child in Washington wasn’t optimal, but was understandable. An uninspiring sweep at the hands of the stingy Islanders in 2019 raised red flags. And a playoff performance flatter that Kyrie Irving thinks the world is sent Yinzer panic levels to an all-time high.

While that four-game defeat to the league’s 24th-best team (Montreal) was concerning, it doesn’t tell the full story. After all, the Penguins overcame an epidemic of injuries during the regular season, yet still performed at a 102-point pace. And it wasn’t just depth pieces missing a game or two here that the Penguins had to deal with. Sidney Crosby missed 28 games. Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust missed 14. Kris Letang missed 8, and Justin Schultz missed 23. Jake Guentzel didn’t play a game after suffering a regular season ending shoulder injury on the last day of 2019.

And yet the Penguins danced through the rain drops all season long. They looked like a dangerous team until a 3-7-0 slump soured the end of their regular season. Losing to the Canadiens doesn’t erase all of the positive strides the Penguins took during the regular season last year. It certainly doesn’t affect the bevy of high-end talent this roster still has to offer. However, it’s certainly an aging roster (at least when it comes to their very best players). The result is legitimate questions about whether all of last year’s positives can carry over into this season and beyond.

Projected Lineup

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyKasperi Kapanen
Jason ZuckerEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevJared McCannEvan Rodrigues
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerColton Sceviour
Forwards (New Players in Bold)
Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Mike MathesonCody Ceci
Defensemen (New Players in Bold)
Tristan Jarry
Casey DeSmith
Goaltenders

Kap-back

After failing to solve the Rubik’s cube of Carey Price in the qualifier round, general manager Jim Rutherford promised sweeping changes. Rutherford certainly delivered on that promise; only Ottawa and Minnesota made more trades than Pittsburgh’s four. But the jury is still out on whether or not the Penguins are a better as a result.

When they won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins were one of the fastest teams in the league. Mike Sullivan’s squad played with an incredible pace that few teams could match. And while Sullivan tried to maintain that style in the seasons that followed, the Penguins got away from their identity. Bringing in players like Ryan Reaves and Jack Johnson slowed the team down. And while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (among other talented players) were able to carry the team to the playoffs, they weren’t able to do much damage in them.

The good news for those two and the Pittsburgh faithful is that Jim Rutherford seems to be getting back in the fast lane. It started by trading for Jason Zucker from Minnesota at the deadline, a player the club had been linked to for a while. While the cost (a 1st and prospect Calen Addison) was high, Zucker fit in well. Zucker showed great chemistry with Crosby in the regular season filling the injured Guentzel’s void (scoring 12 points in 15 regular season games), and put up strong underlying numbers on Malkin’s wing in the playoffs.

Rutherford ultimately doubled down on Pittsburgh’s need for speed in the offseason. After trading then 18-year old prospect Kasperi Kapanen as a centerpiece for the Phil Kessel blockbuster, Rutherford reuniting with the now 24-year old winger. Kapanen certainly possesses elite speed and can play in all three situations (5-on-5, PP, PK). Over the last two seasons, Kapanen has scored at a .54 point-per-game pace, and Mike Sullivan announced he’ll likely start the year with Sid.

Like Zucker, the Penguins paid a high price to acquire Kapanen. While that was understandable for the former, it’s surprising for the latter considering how tough moving salary is during the pandemic. Pittsburgh should know that as well as anybody after trading quality middle-six forward Nick Bjugstad to the Wild for just a 7th despite retaining the max-allowed 50% of his $4.1 million cap hit. Kapanen cost Pittsburgh their first round pick and quality center prospect Filip Hallander.

Ironically, one of the pieces dealt to Toronto for Kapanen (depth forward Evan Rodrigues) actually resigned with the club in free agency. Rodrigues will compete for a depth role out of camp, likely battling Mark Jankowski. Jankowski was dismal last year in Calgary but was a quality bottom-sixer beforehand, and if he could bounce back it would be a nice boon for Pittsburgh’s depth. But losing the 1st and Hallander certainly stings the Pens sustainability.

Pittsburgh’s dependence on veterans and lack of quality youth is directly related to the astonishing fact the Penguins haven’t picked in the 1st round five of the last six drafts. The club’s only first round pick since 2014 (the year they drafted Kapanen 22nd) is Samuel Poulin, a solid forward prospect taken 21st in 2019. Whether or not Poulin is also traded as part of Rutherford’s all-in push remains to be seen.

Ghosts of Penguins Past

While Kapanen is a nice addition for the outstanding Crosby-Malkin led forward core, Pittsburgh certainly lost more names than they added. The flat salary cap and ownership’s desire to cut salary made sure of that. The aforementioned Bjugstad trade seemed like a drastic undersell even for the difficult conditions. But he was far from the only player to leave this offseason.

Let’s start with the longest tenured loss, veteran power forward Patric Hornqvist. The scorer of the Cup-winning goal in 2017 was their one key contributor that didn’t play with much pace. What Hornqvist lacks in speed, he makes up for in physicality and scoring touch at the net-front; he’s scored at a 20-plus goal pace in a full season every season since 2009-10.

Though moving on from an already slow 33-year old with 3 years left at a fairly pricey $5.3 million cap hit makes sense, what Pittsburgh got back doesn’t. In fact, they actually added $775K in salary by acquiring Colton Sceviour and Mike Matheson for Hornqvist. Sceviour is a generic fourth-liner, no problems there, but acquiring Matheson is a major gamble. The surprising 8-year, $39 million extension he played under in Florida since 2018 has not aged well. He has never scored more than 27 points or delivered a positive 5-on-5 Corsi OR Expected Goals For% in a full NHL season. While Pittsburgh has gotten the most out unheralded defensemen like John Marino and Justin Schultz in years past, the Matheson reclamation project might not age well.

Granted, it will be tough for it to age worse than the Jack Johnson reclamation project. Johnson’s 5-year deal signed on July 1, 2019 was maligned for the second pen was put to paper. The results matched the dread. Johnson was routinely caved in his own zone, surrendering quality chances on the reg. The contract will ultimately never see its original end, as Johnson was bought out in the offseason. Pittsburgh will be paying between a $900K and $2 million cap penalty for the next six(!) years, a tough pill for a cap-strapped contender to swallow.

Usually, when you lose a player, it’s a good idea to replace them. Unfortunately, the Penguins replaced one of the league’s worst defensemen in the league in Johnson with another of the league’s worst defensemen in Cody Ceci. Ceci was actually respectable by public advanced metrics for the first time in a long-time. But that was likely due to playing mostly with Toronto’s best defenseman, Morgan Rielly. After all, Rielly played almost the exact same out of minutes with Ceci as he did without him, and put up significantly better numbers in the latter ice-time.

Jarring Situation?

The final big piece to leave Pittsburgh in the offseason was one of the most important members of the Cup winning teams, Matt Murray. Murray, technically a rookie for both of Pittsburgh’s most recent championships, won 28 playoff games from 2016-2018. However, the luster has since worn off. Murray allowed 5.04 more goals than expected over the last three seasons.. Getting a 2nd round pick and a solid prospect in Jonathan Gruden is about the return everyone expected.

Trading Murray made sense in large part to the emergence of Tristan Jarry last season. After taking a step back last season, which he spent mostly in the AHL after backing up Murray in 17-18, Jarry eventually took over the starter’s role. In 31 starts, Jarry posted an impressive .921 save percentage and saved 11.07 goals above average (13th in NHL). He even earned his first career All-Star selection.

The question now is whether or not Jarry is truly legit. After all, 31 starts is a very small sample size, as Jarry put up a merely respectable .905 save percentage in 29 games over the past three campaigns. He’ll no longer have an established safety net behind him. Casey DeSmith (.914 SV% in 50 career NHL games) should take over the backup role. The fact that Pittsburgh’s goalie tandem has less than 100 combined games of NHL experience is nontraditional at best and concerning at worst. Though the fact both goalies have solid track records in the games they have played in is encouraging.

Here’s another NHL season preview of a team that was a serious Cup contender a few years ago to take a look at.

The Verdict

While there are some concerns, it seems like there’s nothing the Penguins haven’t been able to handle over the last 14 years. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still elite centers. They may not be the very best in the game anymore, but they’re still knocking on the door. They have some strong line mates in Bryan Rust (who had a breakout 2019-20 campaign, scoring over a point-per-game), Jake Guentzel, and the aforementioned Zucker and Kapanen.

On the backend, Kris Letang remains a strong top-pair option and has plenty of chemistry with the underrated Brian Dumoulin. Marcus Pettersson is solid in a top-four role, as the Penguins looked like they fleeced Anaheim in acquiring him for Daniel Sprong. John Marino was a revelation last year, finishing eighth in Calder voting. He’s an outstanding young defenseman, and it will be interesting to see how he performs in increasingly difficult minutes.

The big question in the short term is whether the players behind these stars are strong enough (or weak enough, depending on how you look at it) to drag them down. That was the major reason I had the Penguins missing the playoffs last year. While the qualifier round loss made that technically true, the Penguins had a 99% chance of making the playoffs in a normal season.

I don’t plan on making the same mistake twice. Pittsburgh is close to a lock for the playoffs this year in my eyes. They’re a legitimate contender to go deep with pesky Carolina out of the way and Philadelphia and Boston’s defenses taking some hits. Below-average goaltending or another plague of injuries is the only way I see Pittsburgh missing the tournament, and while there’s a legitimate path to the former, it seems unlikely Pittsburgh’s inexperienced but respectable tandem drags them down to the bottom of their division.

Long term is where things get dicey. Considering Pittsburgh’s disappointing two campaigns, Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan’s tenures may be nearing their end. Rutherford is 71 and his Hall of Fame executive career may be in its final days. And today’s Penguins feel like they’re in the same spot they were five years ago when they brought Sullivan in. If the Penguins underachieve again this year and the Capitals, one of Pittsburgh’s arch-rivals, return to form after axing their head coach, Pittsburgh may follow suit.

But those are questions (likely) for future seasons. The 2021 Penguins have their weaknesses, but their stars are still their stars. As long as they’re around, the Penguins will be a threatening team. Though they’re a level below the truly elite teams like Vegas, Colorado, and Tampa Bay.

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