Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Pittsburgh Penguins 2020-21 Season Preview

 

From Getty Images

       When the Penguins were eliminated in the wild card round by the Canadiens, a team that shouldn't have been there, people started to wonder if the sun was setting on the Penguins' success. They might not be wrong, as Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are 34, 33 and 33 years old respectively. Former key members Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Murray have left, and with their rivals only getting better, this year will be tougher than ever for the Penguins. 

Additions: F Kasperi Kapanen, D Mike Matheson, F Colton Sceviour, F Mark Jankowski, D Cody Ceci.

Subtractions: G Matt Murray, F Patric Hornqvist, F Conor Sheary, D Justin Schultz, F Nick Bjugstad, F Patrick Marleau, D Jack Johnson.

Best Move: Signing John Marino to a six year extension.

Worst Move: Trading Patric Hornqvist to Florida for Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour.

One Move I'd Make: Do anything, literally anything, to prevent a Matheson-Ceci pairing.

Best Contract: Jake Guentzel, four years remaining with a $6 million cap hit.

Worst Contract: Mike Matheson, six years remaining with a $4.875 million cap hit.

New Division Rivals: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia, Washington.

Pending UFAs: Colton Sceviour, Cody Ceci, Evan Rodrigues, Frederick Gaudreau, Zach Trotman.

Pending RFAs: Teddy Blueger, Mark Jankowski.


Forwards

Sidney Crosby finished second in Hart voting in 2018-19, but it doesn't feel like it, since everyone forgot about him and shifted over to McDavid and MacKinnon this offseason. Crosby isn't really on the level of those guys, but he is still a top player in the NHL. While injuries caught up to him and held him to 41 games last year, Crosby still scored 16 goals with 47 points. In his 15 year career, Crosby has never averaged under a point per game, even in his 22 game 2011-12. Jake Guentzel was having an amazing season on Crosby's wing until he went down with an injury. He scored his 20th goal on the same play he got hurt on, and he only played in 39 games. He returned for the playoffs, and had three points in four games. In case you were wondering if Evgeni Malkin was washed up, he scored 25 goals with 74 points in 55 games, for his highest points per game mark since his Hart winning 2011-12 season. Bryan Rust was rumored to be in trade talks in the offseason, as the Penguins may have been looking to sell high after Rust had a great season playing with Malkin. Rust scored a team leading 27 goals with 56 points in 55 games. Health was a big issue for the Penguins last year, as only four forwards appeared in at least 60 of their 69 games, and none of them were in the top-six. To round out the top two lines are two wingers recently acquired by the team. Jason Zucker was acquired midseason from Minnesota, and scored six goals with six assists in 15 games after the trade, and added two more goals in the playoffs. Overall, he scored 20 goals, hitting that mark for the fifth time in the past six years. The Penguins traded a first round pick for Kasperi Kapanen, and while he's only 24 and one year removed from a 20 goal season, that seems like an overpay. Kapanen scored 13 goals with 36 points for the Maple Leafs last year, and while he could score more playing with Crosby, he did play with Auston Matthews and John Tavares last year, and that didn't really work out. While the Penguins were his third team, James McCann has found something in Pittsburgh. He only scored 27 goals in 212 games with Vancouver and Florida, but since coming over midway through 2018-19, McCann has 25 goals in 98 games. 14 of them came last year, and he tied his career high of 35 points. Plus, he's only 24. Evan Rodrigues was actually traded for Kapanen, and then when the Leafs didn't qualify him, he returned to the Penguins. In seven games after being traded from Buffalo last year, Rodrigues scored one goal. Things went well in that short stint, with a very high CF% of 64.4. Colton Sceviour, Sam Lafferty and Rodrigues will fight over two spots. Sceviour is a nine year veteran who had 16 points in 69 games for the Panthers last year. His 44.4 CF% was well below the team average. In his rookie season, Lafferty scored six goals with seven assists in 50 games. He has produced at the AHL level but that's about it. The Penguins signed Brandon Tanev to a six year deal, and the fit actually worked in year one. Tanev scored 11 goals with 25 points, but he earned 11 Selke votes, and was second among Penguins forwards in penalty kill time. The only forward ahead of him was Teddy Blueger, a former second rounder who became a full-time player last year. Blueger scored nine goals with 22 assists in 69 games. Even when he scored 17 and 14 goals in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Mark Jankowski was mainly just a defensive forward. His goal total dropped off to five for Calgary last year, so they didn't tender him a contract. He can play center, but a line of Jankowski, Blueger and Tanev would be very nice defensively. Zach Aston-Reese also received some Selke votes last year, and he had a decent 3.5 GAR. He will be a starter eventually, but he'll miss time rehabbing from surgery. 

Defensemen

Kris Letang is still a good defenseman for now, but I don't think I'd call him an all-star or a serious Norris candidate. He is regressing defensively, but he did score 15 goals with 44 points last year, so it's not like he's useless. Letang's average ice time was nearly 26 minutes a game last year. Some of that was spent with partner Brian Dumoulin, who was limited to 28 games last year. Dumoulin had eight points with a 56.8 CF% in his limited time. The real star of the Pittsburgh defense last year was John Marino. A rookie who the Penguins gave up a sixth rounder to Edmonton for in July 2019, Marino had 26 points in 56 games last year with a +17 rating, and he finished 8th in Calder voting. Marino was valued highly by analytics, with a 15.3 GAR, and 9.2 of that came from his defensive value. Another nice under-the-radar addition from a team formerly in the Pacific Division, Marcus Pettersson has played well since coming over from Anaheim. At age 23 last year, Pettersson had 22 points in 69 games, with a GAR of 8.7. The top-four defensemen are good, but if the third pairing is what we think it will be, things will crash immediately. After finally escaping from Jack Johnson, the Penguins brought in both Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci to replace Johnson as the worst defender. Surprisingly, Matheson's analytics weren't bad last year. But, he was just plain awful at times, and might have cost the Panthers a play-off series against the Islanders last year with eight penalty minutes in two games, which would have been higher if one major penalty wasn't reverted to a minor. Ceci on the other hand, saw his stats in Ottawa flip in Toronto. Previously, he was a liability defensively but alright on offense, but last year he brought nothing to the table offensively but was decent defensively. He's physical and can block shots, but that's about it. Like Ceci, Juuso Riikola isn't good on offense, but is a fine bottom pairing defenseman or seventh defenseman. He had seven points in 36 games last year. Chad Ruhwedel is entering his fifth season as a seventh defenseman in Pittsburgh. He's fine in that role, but nothing more. 

Goalies

25 year old Tristan Jarry will be vital to the success of the Penguins in 2020-21. He had great numbers last year, but he only made 31 starts. Jarry had a .921 SV% with a 2.43 GAA and an 11.07 GSAA. Even though it will only be a 56 game season, Jarry should start more games than he did last year. His backup, Casey DeSmith, has a .917 SV% in 50 career games. However, none of those games came last year, as DeSmith started and struggled in the AHL, with a .905 SV% and a 2.92 GAA. While both Jarry and DeSmith have had success in the past, goaltending will be a big issue for the team in 2020-21. 


Projected Lines

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Kasperi Kapanen

Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust

Sam Lafferty - Jared McCann - Evan Rodrigues

Mark Jankowski - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev

Extras: Colton Sceviour, Zach Aston-Reese


Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang

Marcus Pettersson - John Marino

Mike Matheson - Cody Ceci

Extras: Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel


Tristan Jarry

Casey DeSmith


Projection

The Penguins are an aging team, but at least their stars are still productive. The way things ended last year was rough, and that could be who the Penguins are now. The rest of the division mostly got better, which is not something the Penguins can say. I might be alone with this, but I think that the Penguins' floor is also their most likely outcome, which is a sixth place finish. 

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