A fairly typical regular season in Pittsburgh was followed by a post-season result that has become too familiar over the last couple of seasons.
After a third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division – just three points behind the first-place Washington Capitals – the Pittsburgh Penguins were dealt another early postseason exit, this time in the expanded playoffs’ qualifying round in four games at the hands of the underdog Montreal Canadiens.
This comes just one postseason after the Penguins were swept out of the first round by the New York Islanders. For the first time since the 2011 and 2012 postseasons, the Penguins have failed to win a playoff series in two straight trips to the dance. They’ve won just one playoff series – over the rival Flyers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs – since winning their second of two straight Stanley Cups in 2017.
I know, boo hoo, right? I would tend to agree, however we can’t forget this is a team with Stanley Cup aspirations for as long as they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the team’s 1-2 punch down the middle. An annual Stanley Cup is, of course, an unrealistic goal, however that’s the mindset which makes first-round exits an even bigger pill to swallow for this organization.
General manager Jim Rutherford saw that changes were necessary, however, if this roster was to become a juggernaut come playoff time once again, and he made good on his promise to re-tool his team with the expectation of deeper postseason runs ahead.
Let’s go ahead and take a look at the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins, their season outlook and odds as well as some predictions on how this season could end up looking like for this storied core.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 40-23-6 (3rd in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: RW Kasperi Kapanen, D Michael Matheson, C Mark Jankowski, D Cody Ceci, RW Colton Sceviour
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $1,318,158
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +1700
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +900
It’s been a long, long time since the Penguins had to worry about their offense and next season will be no exception.
As long as the Penguins have their 1-2 punch down the middle intact, this team is going to score goals. Heck, they’ve spent large chunks of time without one another in the lineup, but Crosby and Malkin find a way to produce even when this Penguins team gets bit by the injury bug, which is seemingly on an annual basis.
Last season was no exception as Crosby missed 28 games with a core muscle injury that required surgery while Malkin missed another 14 himself with multiple ailments. Jake Guentzel injured his shoulder after scoring his 20th goal on Dec. 30 and missed 30 games himself. Even in a breakout year, Bryan Rust missed 14 games while Kris Letang was once again unable to stay healthy, missing eight contests himself.
It’s rare to see a season-ending injury and yet still feel thankful that it wasn’t much worse. This is the play that every hockey parent fears most. #Guentzel #Pens #Sens #NHL pic.twitter.com/yW9ije0BK9
— Steve Warne (@TSNSteve) December 31, 2019
Teddy Blueger was the team’s only forward to skate in all 69 of the team’s regular-season games and just one of two total Penguins to accomplish the feat alongside defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
In other words, this was a Penguins offense – and team – just decimated by injury last season, yet there they were at 10th with 3.20 goals per game.
Crosby and Malkin remained elite point-producers when on the ice, however, as Crosby’s tallied 47 points in 41 games and Malkin 74 points in his 55 games played. Malkin’s 1.35 points per game ranked
That said, one area that did struggle amidst the injuries was the power play that sat in the middle of the pack at 16th with a mediocre 19.9% clip on the season. The pesky net-front presence of Patric Hornqvist declined with just three power play goals on the season while he now resides in Sunrise after an off-season deal with the Florida Panthers.
With Hornqvist gone, a spot opened up on the right wing and the team filled that spot with their 2014 first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen, but in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Penguins sent the Leafs a 2020 first-round pick, forward Evan Rodrigues and prospect Filip Hallander in the deal while they themselves also acquired Jesper Lindgren and Pontus Aberg.
After the Leafs didn’t tender Rodrigues a contract, he returned to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $700K deal.
It appears Kapanen will get a shot alongside Crosby on the team’s top line out of the gate. A shooter by trade, Kapanen could benefit from the elite play-making skills of his new center while offering the type of north-south speed Crosby has made a career out of.
Rutherford also traded the oft-injured Nick Bjugstad to the Wild and filled the third-line center spot with former Calgary Flame Mark Jankowski in free agency.
It wasn’t a roster overhaul. but calculated moves on the veteran GM’s behalf. The Penguins’ top two lines of Guentzel/Crosby/Kapanen and Jason Zucker/Malkin/Rust look awfully formidable heading into the season. We’ll see what the bottom six is capable of, but if this version of the Penguins forward group can stay healthy – at least compared to last season – the team could find itself closer to the top five in offense once again.
The club’s defense also saw its fair of injury woes with top-pair blueliner Brian Dumoulin being hit the hardest. Dumoulin missed more than half the season, appearing in just 28 games due to a ankle injury, although he was able to appear in all four of the team’s qualifying-round games against the Habs.
Letang also missed eight games, but the good news was it allowed for the emergence of a pair of defensemen who will be a big part of this defensive corps moving forward.
John Marino, acquired by Rutherford in the summer of 2019 from the Edmonton Oilers for only a conditional sixth-round pick, was perhaps the brightest spot on this team last season and certainly the brightest on the blueline. The 23-year-old appeared in 56 games in his rookie season, tallying six goals and 26 points in the process. He even benefited from some power play time, notching a goal and four points on the man advantage.
— Here’s Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 5, 2019
I mentioned Pettersson skated in all of the team’s 69 games, and he notched two goals and 22 points in the process. At 24, he will join Marino as a long-term piece of the Penguins’ defensive puzzle as he signed a five-year deal worth a touch over $20M mid-season at the end of January.
All told, the Penguins’ defense shrugged off the injuries and ranked 12th with 2.84 goals against per game while their penalty kill tied for eighth with an 82.1% mark.
Additionally, the Penguins prevented chances at a rate even better than those surface numbers would suggest. At 5v5, the Penguins ranked second with 23.61 scoring chances against per 60 and fifth with 9.63 high-danger chances against/60. For a defense that was forced to lean on young, inexperienced players at times, you’ll take those rates all day long.
Nonetheless, the defense saw some changes this offseason as part of the team’s on-ice personnel changes. The team bought out struggling veteran Jack Johnson, a move that many saw coming before the former first-round pick signed with the New York Rangers. The team also acquired defenseman Michael Matheson in the deal that sent Hornqvist to the Panthers. Matheson’s contract isn’t exactly ideal, at least in terms of length with six more seasons at a $4.875M cap hit, however it’s not a bad deal in exchange for a declining asset in Hornqvist.
The team also signed Cody Cedi to a one-year deal after he spent last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it appears he’s more of a seventh defenseman option with the Penguins top six largely set at the moment with Chad Ruhwedel joining Letang, Dumoulin, Marino, Pettersson and Matheson in the top six.
There wasn’t much wrong with the structure or results from a defensive standpoint last season, and it appears the group has improved, at least on paper for the time being. I would suggest the team’s defense is in good shape, but staying healthy will always be important to this group.
Rutherford made changes to all three phases of his roster, which included trading goaltender Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators for a 2020 third-round draft pick.
The return could be viewed as underwhelming for a 26-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, and it is. However, as a restricted free agent, the Penguins would have had to sign Murray for a decent sum, and the cash-strapped Pens also have Tristan Jarry in two coming off an excellent, breakout season.
As a result, the return was based largely financially-induced, but it is also worth noting that Murray has scuffled in two of the last three seasons, posting a career-low .899 Sv% in 38 appearances last season.
The move officially hands the keys to Jarry has the clear-cut No.1 with Casey DeSmith likely to make the full-time jump to the NHL after getting some reps in over the past few seasons.
Jarry worked to an excellent 2.43 GAA and .921 Sv% with three shutouts in 31 starts (33 appearances) a season ago, largely out-playing Murray in the process.The 25-year-old saw Murray start the postseason against the Habs, but allowed just one goal on 21 shots in his lone start nevertheless.
— NHL (@NHL) December 7, 2019
The 29-year-old DeSmith has appeared in 50 NHL games across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, working to a healthy 2.66 GAA and .917 Sv% in the process. He spent the entirety of the 2019-20 season in the AHL, posting a subpar 2.92 GAA and .905 Sv% across 41 contests.
That said, DeSmith has largely thrived as a pro, turning in a 2.75 GAA and .916 Sv% while spending the entirety of the 2018-19 season at the NHL level.
The Pens’ were smack-dab in the middle of the pack with a .904 Sv% from their goaltending last season but slipped to 20th with a .915 Sv% at 5v5 action.
The new tandem should give the organization some worry-free goaltending again in 2020-21.
2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins Predictions
When Jim Rutherford promises changes, you’re going to get changes. He’s a man of his word as he has certainly make some significant moves over the last couple months in re-shaping the roster and its complementary pieces to the star core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
We knew a change was certainly going to be made in terms of the goaltending situation as there wasn’t much need for both Jarry and Murray to earn healthy paychecks while splitting time in the crease. Lowering the goaltending costs while trading a struggling Murray made sense, even if it was for a third-round pick. That’s the type of return you get when teams know they are providing you with cap relief.
Shedding Johnson was also expected. The veteran’s long-term deal was under heavy scrutiny and his play is no longer at the level that warrants such a deal. Matheson is indeed an upgrade and while the contract isn’t inconsequential, the Pens also got rid of three more years at $5.3M for a declining Hornqvist.
The Kapanen deal makes sense as he has top-line upside and can score goals. His speed and ability to finish could very well work alongside Crosby, giving the sure-fire Hall of Famer goal-scoring wingers on both sides. The second-line of Zucker, Malkin and Rust are one of the better second-line units in the NHL.
It would be a treat for Penguin and hockey fans alike to see this team stay healthy. Losing the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Letang for long stretches isn’t fun for anyone and I’d like to see what this offense could do at full health, or close to it, because I believe this is a top-five offense if that were to come to fruition.
Given the advanced metrics this defense put forth last year, anything close to those figures would be more than acceptable. Add in what should be quality goaltending and the Penguins could be cooking with gas.
To me, this is the season where the Penguins re-assert themselves as a serious Stanley Cup threat. There aren’t many holes on this version of the roster, and their health fortunes can’t get much worse.
This is a postseason club, bar-none. I believe the Penguins get into the playoffs and march their way to an Eastern Conference Final appearance and find themselves in a matchup against someone like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, it’s difficult to predict the precise matchup, but I also believe this is a Penguins team that can absolutely win the loaded Metropolitan Division and win at least two playoff rounds shortly thereafter.
In other words, look out for the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins.
READ: 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers Season Preview, Odds & Predictions