Our Pittsburgh Penguins 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Penguins haven’t won a Stanley Cup for two seasons and some are saying they are going to be missing the playoffs this year. I’ll admit, as a Capitals fan I’d love for that to be true, but I honestly don’t think it is that simple. We can never count a team with Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Murray out.
The team had some issues during the regular season. The teams powerplay struggled at times, but finished the year in the top 5 of the league, but they did give up the most shorthanded goals against in the league with 15 shorties against. They traded Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan and two picks for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad at the deadline. The team struggled with defense as injuries kept top defenseman out of the lineup. Ultimately the team managed to outscore opponents to win games. Regardless of some of the struggles, they clinched third spot in the Metro Division and made the playoffs with 100 points.
It’s no secret that the Penguins had a disappointing playoff appearance last year, when they were swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. Maybe the Islanders head coach Barry Trotz just knew how to play the Penguins, having beaten them in round two the year before on the road to the Stanley Cup. The reality is, it was a lot of things. Essentially the Islanders beat the Penguins in goaltending, defense and special teams. Lehner played amazing in that series, and the Islanders stymied the Penguins power play, allowing only one powerplay strike against. Additionally Jack Johnson was awful, which I will hammer home in this preview. He did however have one of the most hilarious moments of the playoffs where he exited the penalty box and immediately took another penalty(and could have been called for a trip on Boychuk too).
This offseason the team needed to shed some cap space with Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger all needing contracts. The general manager, Jim Rutherford, also spoke about needing to fix the chemistry in the room. He questioned the commitment and heart of the team. Kessel reportedly blocked a trade to Minnesota early in the off season, but he eventually was traded to Arizona in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. There were always rumours that Phil Kessel caused some issues in the Penguins locker room, with his apparent lack of motivation at times on the ice, and his lack of a strict training regimen. His lack of a physical game, and his relaxed defensive approach also put him at odds with head coach Mike Sullivan. Kessel was benched at some points due to phoning in his defensive game. However, his offensive production was amazing in Pittsburgh. He scored 70, 92 and 82 points in the last three seasons and provided some great secondary scoring in support of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Malkin and Phil had their issues on and off the ice rumourdly. In a recent Athletic article, Rob Rossi was able to speak to Malkin and get some insight into the rift. Some team sources stated that Malkin would request a trade if Kessel returned for the 2019-2020 season. Malkin has denied this, but he did have one of his worst defensive seasons last year with a league and team high 84 giveaways and a -25 overall. Malkin only scored 12 even strength goals, and must have been frustrated with his linemate Phil Kessel throughout the season. The difference between Kessel and Galchenyuk’s cap hit to the Penguins is about $1 million. Kessel had two more seasons on his contract past 2019-2020, compared to Galchenyuk, whose contract expires at the end of this season. The moves gives Jim Rutherford some flexibility down the road.
Rutherford made another move to clear up some cap space. It was rumoured he was shopping Jack Johnson, but could not get any bites. So, he moved another defenseman, Olli Maatta and his $4.083 million annual cap hit contract. Maatta is a solid defenseman, who doesn’t have huge speed, but seems like an odd person to move when Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are also on the team. Maatta was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for versatile forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick.
This was great, they managed to shed some cap space in order to sign their pending free agents. Teddy Blueger got a two year $1.5 million deal, Zach Aston-Reese almost went to arbitration but got a two year $1 million deal, and Marcus Pettersson got a one year $874,125 contract. Blueger and Aston-Reese seem like some great value, fair deals, but Pettersson got a little cheated on his deal considering the great year he had. Why did he get skimped out on? Because in July Jim Rutherford signed 27 year old fourth liner Brandon Tanev to a six year $3.5 million modified no-trade clause deal. This gave the team almost no room to sign Petterson without going over the cap. Lucky for the team Petterson took a team friendly deal, but they should not have had to put him in that situation. Rutherford lost all the flexibility of dealing Phil Kessel out by overpaying a bottom six forward. Tanev is a great player who can kill penalties and add some energy, but he’ll be overpaid from the beginning just like Rutherford’s deal for Jack Johnson. He’ll likely be hard to move with the modified no-trade clause and the salary hit too.
Matt Cullen (retired)
This team has a well defined centre and left wing depth chart. On the right side there will be a lot of juggling this season. On the wings, this team has a lot of players who can play up and down the lineup. Crosby and Jake Guentzel had their right winger linemate change all season long. With the amount of wingers looking for a spot, Mike Sullivan will be juggling lines all season again.
The top six will be changed up this year. The team still has the league’s best one-two punch at centre with Crosby and Malkin. These two will make the team exciting and fun to watch, and may have some new linemates this year. Jared McCann saw action on both top lines last season after he was acquired at the deadline. In his 32 games with the club, he scored 11 goals and 6 assists. His speed lent itself nicely to the playmaking abilities of Sidney Crosby and he seemed to develop some real chemistry with the top line. He’ll probably get first shot at a full season playing on the right wing of Crosby. On Crosby’s left, Jake Guentzel had a career year in 2018-2019, potting 40 goals and 36 assists. He could very well improve upon that this season as he and Crosby have developed some great chemistry together the past few seasons. If Jared McCann does not work on the right wing, we could see newcomer Dominik Kahun get an opportunity. Kahun is a versatile forward who plays defensively responsible. Kahun seems to be a player much like Bryan Rust, who already plays up and down the Penguins lineup. Kahun does seem to have more offensive upside though, so could get more opportunities this season. On the other hand, Bryan Rust has already played a lot of minutes with Crosby and Guentzel over the past few seasons. Whoever meshes the best will stay on the line.
Alex Galchenyuk will be looking to take Phil Kessel’s old spot on Malkin’s left wing. Galchenyuk has struggled to score consistently the past few seasons, but we very well could see his performance jump by playing with Geno. I do not think Galchenyuk will put up the same number of points as Kessel though. On the right side we could see newcomer Dominik Kahun get an opportunity to play with Malkin. With Malkin’s gripes with Phil Kessel being about defensive play, Kahun could get a shot. He’ll most likely be fighting Patric Hornqvist for the spot. The two had nearly identical point totals, but play very different games. Kahun, Hornqvist and Rust are not the typical top six type player, but Crosby can make anyone look good, and with Kessel gone, somebody has to play on line two. Mike Sullivan will have some work to do, sorting out the best fit for these two top lines early in the season.
Following the top two lines, the Penguins are set to have some solid reliable bottom six forwards. All of these guys can be interchanged pretty easily between the third and fourth lines.The bottom six on this team are not going to be scoring a lot, so the Penguins will need to rely upon Crosby and Malkin for some heavy lifting all season. The team has dropped off pretty heavily from the HBK line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel which was a nasty scoring third line and put up some great numbers. Now they’ll have Nick Bjugstad centre the third line in a more defensively responsible role. Dominik Kahun could play on either wing, and Hornqvist or Rust could play on the right. Hornqvist could add a definite net presence leading to some gritty goals.
The fourth line will have Teddy Blueger as centreman. On his wings Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev will provide some huge speed and energy. Brandon Tanev had a career year last year, but he’ll still likely start the year on the fourth line. He could fight for the third line spot, and with how notoriously tough Crosby is to develop chemistry with, he could even see time with him on the first line. Crosby has had some success with some unlikely linemates, so it’s not out of the question. Tanev will undoubtedly play on the penalty kill as he averages over two minutes per game on the PK with the Jets. Somewhere in this lineup, Dominik Simon will challenge for a roster spot also. He’s coming off a career high in games and points, so will look to continue improving this season. He’s got some great possession stats, and seems to make every line he is on better, so he could get injected into the lineup and given a chance on any of the four lines.
This forward roster is a strange one, as it seems no line is concretely set going into the season. I could see all the wingers playing throughout the lineup.
The top four defenseman on this team are set to be great. The bottom two are questionable. It’ll take a team wide effort to overcome the shortcomings of the third pair.
Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang will be first pairing. Both these guys were hurt last season and it caused some defensive concerns with depth defense playing above their normal lineup spots. If these guys stay healthy all season, the Penguins will have a very solid first pairing. Dumoulin and Letang will provide great puck movement.
Marcus Pettersson and Justin Schultz will be the second pairing. Schultz has revitalized his career in Pittsburgh, working with defensive coach Sergei Gonchar. He’s got one season left on his contract, so could try to up his value as a free agent. He was injured last season, if he can stay healthy he’ll definitely add some firepower to the power play all season long.
Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson will the the third pairing. Before last season. Jack Johnson was given a contract by Jim Rutherford for five years at $3.25 million annual value. He’s been every bit as awful as everyone thought he would be in Pittsburgh, but continues to get minutes. Gudbranson on the other hand, was expected to be bad, but actually had some decent numbers after joining the team at the trade deadline. Gudbranson came over from Vancouver in exchange for Tanner Pearson. Even though he was better than expected, having him play with stats black hole Jack Johnson is not good. The two are older, big, slow defenseman. They will get burned on a lot of plays because they are simply too slow. I’m curious to see how Mike Sullivan utilizes both these defenders. Jack Johnson has been awful and will continue to be awful, but Gudbranson could be salvaged. Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola, Pierre-Olivier Joseph will be the depth defenseman in case of injury. Could we see them play instead of Jack Johnson? In Columbus John Tortorella was unafraid to bench Jack Johnson due to poor play, something Jim Rutherford disagreed. The two had a comical back and forth last off season. For the team to succeed Sullivan will have to bench Johnson, but he chose to play Johnson instead of Maatta last year in the playoffs and the team was swept. Just sayin’.
Does Sullivan split up Gudbranson and Johnson this season or just give them sheltered minutes as a third pairing? If he does split them up, it may affect the ability of all three pairings to play strong hockey.
The Penguins are strong on goaltending. Matt Murray is a great goalie who now has two seasons as a cup winner and two seasons without a cup win. He’ll provide some class A net minding for the team again. He’ll be good for about 50 games this season barring injury, and he’ll be counted on to win some tough games some potentially rough defense in front of him at times.
Casey DeSmith will provide some capable backup work for the team again andTristan Jarry will start in the AHL. Jarry has come up to play at the NHL level, but has not shown he is ready to make the jump yet.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2019-2020 Prediction
2nd-4th Metro Division
While I don’t think the penguins got better this off season, it’s hard to rule out a team with Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Murray. They traded Kessel and his elite offensive production for Alex Galchenyuk, who is still trying to find his offensive consistency. Kessel’s production will be missed this year, but his clashes with teammates and coaches will not be missed. The team could have better chemistry overall without Phil in the lineup this year. The team will be hindered by a weak third pairing. Opponents could expose a weakness in Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. We will see how coach Mike Sullivan draws up his lineup with new roster additions. Despite the potential shortcomings on the blueline, this does look like a playoff team to me. If Pittsburgh doesn’t make playoffs they’ll be breaking a thirteen year streak and I don’t think the streak will end this year.