Penguins Season Preview: Will the old mix with the new?

The Penguins are now a team that is four years removed from back to back Stanley Cups. It is hard to think that is has been that long but outside of the stars, this is a completely different squad from those teams. The Penguins were the first team to make the adjustment to a quick four lines and puck moving defensemen and it caught the league by storm. Most of the league has caught up in that aspect and now the stars are getting towards the latter part of their career. So how do they Penguins get back to being the top team in the Eastern Conference. Well last year looked to be a pretty good chance of making another run for much of the year before Jake Guentzel went down with his injury. He made the All Star team for the first time before crashing into the boards on New Years Eve. Matt Murray also didn’t look like the same goalie and eventually lost his job to Tristan Jarry. They hit a wall late in the season, losing 8 of their last 11 games and followed it up with a loss to the Canadiens in the opening round of the bubble. That started the first round of big changes for this team since the Stanley Cup years. The assistant coaches were all let go, Matt Murray was shipped to Ottawa for Jonathan Gruden and a second round pick in last year’s draft, Horny was traded to the Panthers, and half of the defensemen are new faces. Even Sid understood that sometimes changes need to be made.

“I think that, regardless of whether you win or lose, just with the way things are set up it’s hard to keep a team together,” Crosby said. “But especially when you lose, there’s going to be a shakeup. For guys coming in, they’ll be excited for a new opportunity and for guys that played last year, obviously not happy with the way it ended.”

Jim Rutherford has always been very aggressive since he’s arrived in Pittsburgh but this is the biggest shift since the second cup run. If he thinks his team has a weakness, he is going to try and make a move. He was able to get younger and faster this offseason to try and make another run while Crosby and Malkin are still in their championship window. Crosby is now entering his age 33 season, which means he still is playing at an elite level, but at some point soon he isn’t going to be able to do it consistently. Malkin is even one year older at 34, and his type of game most likely will wear him out sooner than Crosby.

The Crosby line will lead the way on the offensive end as a clear cut top line. Guentzel, when healthy last year, was playing at a level we haven’t seen from him before. He had 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) in 39 games before his shoulder injury in December. The chemistry between Guentzel and Crosby is unlike any other in the league. The big key to watch tonight as as these first few weeks play out is how Kasperi Kapanen is able to fit in. He is no stranger to playing on lines with elite players like John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He scored 36 points (13 goals and 23 assists) in 69 games last season. Mike Sullivan has high praise for him, saying he could be just what that line needs to jump-start them this season.

Patrick Allvin, Penguins assistant general manager had this to say. “Crosby wants to play with speed; he wants guys to hunt down the puck, and this gives Kapanen a great opportunity to be part of either Sid or [Malkin’s] line. With [Kapanen’s] speed, I think there’s more too. I think he can really shoot the puck, so he could compliment either [Crosby or Malkin] with the speed and that tenacity he has.”

The true test will be how quick he can get up to speed and adjust to playing with the top line. Kapanen had Visa issues getting out of Finland and has missed all of camp. He is now in Pittsburgh but has to do his mandatory quarantine period before he can join the team next week.

The second line is an interesting mix with Evgeni Malkin getting Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker. We know what we are getting from Malkin and Rust. I think Malkin is going to love what Jason Zucker does and this line actually ends up being the most productive line on the season. This line is the only one that doesn’t have question marks beside it. If the Penguins start slow out of the gates, I hope they don’t go too crazy on messing with the lines. Give these three a full season and you’ll see at least 60 combined goals.

Jared McCann remains on the third line but has two new faces to run the defensive line. Mark Jankowski joined the team and can fill in as a solid defensive center while also contributing on the penalty kill. He has scored seven shorthanded goals since he entered the league which puts him fifth in the league during that span. Evan Rodrigues joins Kapanen as another former Penguin coming back to Pittsburgh. He brings the speed element to the third line that has shown to be necessary if you want to be a top team. This line isn’t going to light up the lamp like the HBK line did, but I think there is a lot of positives to take away from what these three provide.

“That gives us speed on the wings (Kapanen and Rodrigues) and gives us the defensive center (Jankowski) we’re looking for,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “I don’t want to compare Jankowski to [Nick] Bonino, that’s not what I’m doing, but it’s more along the lines of what we had when we were having more success in 2016 and 2017.”

The biggest question mark that this team faces this year is Tristan Jarry manning the net by himself for the first time in his NHL career. He has big shoes to fill as Pens fans have seen the smooth transition from Marc Andre Fleury to Matt Murray. This is the biggest year of uncertainty in net but he had a good season last year, setting career bests in games (33), wins (20), goals against average (2.43), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (3).

Jim Rutherford decided not to resign Justin Schultz who moved on to the Washington Capitals. He had a sharp decline last season from the previous few seasons so it made sense not to pay him more than he was worth. He also pulled some magic and bought out Jack Johnson, a move that had fans cheering. Rutherford will always have that trade loom over his head as his worst move as general manager. The top two defensive pairs will consist of Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Marcus Petterson, and John Marino. That second pair of Petterson and Marino is one of the things I’m most excited to see. Marino has huge upside and Petterson is probably the most consistent guy on the back end. He was the only defender to skate in all 69 games last year and totaled 22 points in the process. At only 24 years old, he signed a five year deal worth just over $20 million to make this the pairing of the future. Letang is still the top guy here but we have all seen the high’s and low’s of his style of play.

The defense even through injuries last year managed to finish middle of the pack at 12th with 2.84 goals against per game. If you dive into the numbers a little more, the stats get even better. They ranked second in the league with only 23.6 scoring chances per 60 minutes and fifth in the league with 9.6 high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes. The youth of this back end did not hurt them so there are good years ahead if they can continue to grow together.

The last pairing will be two newcomers as Michael Matheson came over in the Hornqvist trade and Cody Ceci signed a one year deal. Matheson is questionable because it is another big contract and the last time (Jack Johnson) didn’t turn out well at all. I think he is a different player though and will surprise people. This pairing should be alright and you still have a solid seventh defenseman in Chad Ruhwedel waiting in the wings. Between the three, they can handle the limited minutes of the third pairing.

Big Predictions

  1. Tristan Jarry ends the season top 5 in wins

Jarry takes over in net and doesn’t have to look over this shoulder. The defense as noted above put up some great stats last season and got rid of their weakest pieces. With only a 56 game schedule, there are only a few back to backs to worry about. So I think Sullivan rides his hot goaltender to a top spot in the East.

2. Five players get to 20 goals

Three players hit that total last year and Sidney Crosby wasn’t one of them. Rust, Malkin, and Guentzel should get back to those totals again. Who will be the fifth? Will it be Kaspari Kapanen in his first season? I think it will be Jason Zucker as he takes the role of Patrick Hornqvist in front of the net. The scoring will be very top heavy this year but big things will happen for the offense in only 56 games.

3. Zach Aston-Reese is traded before the end of the season

I love what Aston-Reese brings to the team but another surgery has set him back and the depth in Wilkes-Barre leaves him in a bit of a rough spot. Sam Lafferty showed he can provide good minutes when given chances last year. You also have a youngsters in Drew O’Connor and Colton Sceviour that could be brought up to play some minutes during the season. There is enough to tape out there showing the upside to Aston-Reese’s game and some team will come knocking for him if he can’t crack the lineup when he returns in February.

4. The Penguins win the East

This is the most bold prediction I have. This conference is jam packed with talent and in reality, the Penguins could finish anywhere from 1st to 5th. I think David Pastrnak is a huge loss for the Bruins and the Capitals are at the point of hitting the age cliff. I think the battle should come down to the Penguins and the Flyers so we get treated to that matchup night one to see which team starts out on top.

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