Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will go into the 2018-19 season chasing their third Stanley Cup in four seasons after falling to the Washington Capitals in the second round last season. The former back-to-back champions were looking to be the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-1983. Going into this season, Pittsburgh has the core to win it all again so let’s take a look at a Pittsburgh Penguins preview for this season.
The Penguins stumbled out of the gate last season but they eventually turned it on in the second half of the season to qualify for the playoffs with a 47-29-6 record. It wasn’t smooth sailing though, as Kris Letang struggled mightily throughout the season as he was coming back from neck surgery. He had 51 points in 79 games, but he was often out of position during games which led to goals-against. That especially came true in the playoffs where he lost his man in Game 5 against the Capitals in the third period and in Game 6 in overtime.
Goaltender Matt Murray also struggled a bit during the season not just with injuries, but also after his father passed away unexpectedly. He had a .907 save percentage during the regular season and his high-danger save percentage was only 79.24% last season, according to Corsica.
Evgeni Malkin led the team with 98 points, the most points he’s had in a season since his Hart Trophy-winning 2011-12 season. Phil Kessel also eclipsed 90 points for the first time in his career as he had 34 goals and 58 assists.
Once the Penguins made the playoffs, they exacted revenge on their nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers. They took them out in six, hard-fought games. The Flyers were just out-skilled and overmatched the whole series, especially at goalie. Brian Elliott was sub .900 during that series and it wasn’t nearly good enough. Jake Guentzel scored four goals in an 8-5 series-clinching win in Game 6 to send Pittsburgh to the second round.
In the second round is where the Penguins fell to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. Washington got the better goaltending, played very well defensively, and got the depth scoring they needed as they beat the Penguins in six games.
The Penguins needed to clear some cap space. On June 27th, they sent forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres in return for or a conditional 4th round draft pick in 2019. The move cleared up $5.25 million off of the Penguins cap and allowed them to enter the free agent market.
Pittsburgh made a couple of acquisition in the off-season, starting with signing defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract. Giving five years to a 31-year-old defenseman who’s coming off the worst season of his career and has been trending down even before this past season isn’t usually the strongest way to do business. Johnson’s possession last season was at 47.7 percent and for his career, he’s a 47.2 percent possession player. He also had a 5V5 primary points per 60 of 0.28 and a 0.17 game score per game last season according to Corsica. It’s not very promising for Johnson going into this season but the Penguins believe in giving him a fresh start. They also want to give Sergei Gonchar an opportunity to improve his game.
Pittsburgh also brought back veteran center Matt Cullen on a one-year deal for around the league minimum. Cullen had played in Pittsburgh during their Stanley Cup-winning seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before going to the Minnesota Wild last season. It didn’t turn out the way Cullen expected for him there as his possession was at 40.5 percent. It was the lowest it had been in his career despite having 11 goals last year. There will be no excuses for Cullen this year as he knows the system Mike Sullivan runs and he’ll also have better linemates on the fourth line.
They also signed Derek Grant from the Anaheim Ducks. He’ll likely be out of the lineup when the team is fully healthy. Once injuries hit though, he’d be one of the first players to get a spot in the lineup.
This is a very, very good forward group and an improvement from last season. Last season, the Penguins had players such as Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney taking up spots in the bottom six. Both didn’t provide any offence as they combined to score just four goals together throughout the season. Ryan Reaves was also in the bottom six until he got dealt at the trade deadline and he only scored four goals as well. Improving the bottom six, especially the fourth line, was a major key this off-season.
Up top, Pittsburgh can put top prospect Daniel Sprong with Crosby and Guentzel, which was a line the Penguins debuted at training camp on Friday. General manager Jim Rutherford said after last season that Sprong will be a regular the team this season. It’s just a matter of where they’ll put him in the lineup. He has a wicked shot as evidenced here:
If Sprong does get some quality playing time with Crosby, it would be huge for his progression as a player.
The second line should be interesting as well as Bryan Rust can play anywhere in the lineup. Malkin and Kessel always have great chemistry. Sullivan’s preference is to usually have Kessel on his own line but to start the season, look for them to be together and pick up right where they left off. Rust had 38 points last year and can push for 45-50 points if he can stay healthy. His speed is a huge factor and he can get to loose pucks very quickly. His forechecking can also create havoc for the other team.
Pittsburgh’s third line has the opportunity to be deadly. Derick Brassard should stay as centre as putting him on the wing would be foolish. Pittsburgh is at their best when he and Sheahan are centring their bottom six. Last season, Brassard got hurt during the regular season and just didn’t look right after that. Expect for him to have a bounce-back year. He can score around 20-25 goals with 45-50 points, especially with better linemates in Pittsburgh than he had in Ottawa.
Carl Hagelin needs to get off to a much better start as well. Traditionally, he turns into a different player after Christmas but needs to play better early on. He had just six points before Christmas last season. After Christmas, he had 25 points. A better start could have him around a 40-point ceiling, especially with his speed. There’s no guarantee of that though as he will likely go on some cold streaks. 40 points for him going into free agency would be enormous.
Patric Hornqvist had his best season in Pittsburgh with 29 goals. That was his highest goal total since the 2009-10 season with the Nashville Predators. He also had a 5V5 primary points per 60 of 2.09 last season. He’s a menace around the net which is where he gets most of his goals. Putting him on a line with a playmaking center and a very speedy winger who can get to a lot of loose pucks is a recipe for success.
The fourth line is already improved, as Sheahan will get competent linemates this season. He had 11 goals and 32 points last year, even though Aston-Reese only started being on this line towards the end of the year and into the playoffs. Aston-Reese is coming off a broken jaw he suffered in the playoffs and will likely be a regular in his first full season. He had four goals and six points in 16 games. With Cullen returning, the fourth line is in a better state for this season.
The Dumoulin-Letang pairing is one of the better top pairings in the league when they are in form. Letang had a full summer to train after not being able to last season due to his injury. There’s no reason to think he can’t get back to being a top 10 defenseman in the league. Combine that with Dumoulin coming off yet another outstanding season, this pair can be great. Both drive possession very well (both over 52 percent CF% last season). While Dumoulin doesn’t put up nearly close to the offensive numbers that Letang does, he makes up for it by being a shutdown defender.
Maatta and Schultz got some time together last year. They will likely get a lot of time this year as well. It was a bounce-back season for Maatta as he was finally healthy. It showed as he put up seven goals and 29 points, tying a career high. His possession improved as well from 49.2 percent in 2017 to almost 52 percent last season. His skating was noticeably better as he wasn’t a step slow to pucks like he was in 2017.
Schultz just needs to stay healthy. He missed 19 games last season due to injury and had four goals and 27 points. That is a big fall from his 51 point season in 2016-17 when he played 78 games. He’s blossomed ever since coming over from Edmonton in 2016. If he can stay healthy this season, his ceiling could be around 40 points as he plays top-four pairing minutes and rotates on the top power play.
On the bottom pair, Oleksiak is still fine-tuning his game. He had four goals and 14 points after coming over from the Dallas Stars. Pittsburgh rewarded his play with a three-year extension. They’re banking on that he continues to improve not just his offensive game, but his defensive game as well. He has been widely criticized in the past, but Gonchar was able to work on that part of Oleksiak’s game last year and it paid off.
This pair is also where Johnson is best suited at this point in his career. He’s not a top four defender anymore but if Pittsburgh shelters his minutes, he shouldn’t be too bad. The Penguins love his break-out pass ability, which is one of the biggest reasons they signed him. He’s going to have to show signs of being a better defender as well.
Obviously, Murray will be the starter but there is an open competition for his backup spot. It’s between DeSmith and Tristan Jarry as both saw time backing up Murray last season. DeSmith had a .921 save percentage last season while Jarry was at .908 when he played. This gives Smith the early edge. The fact that he is older and more experienced may also play a factor as Jarry can be the starter in Wilkes-Barre and get playing time. The final decision depends on the pre-season though.
Players to watch
Guentzel will be in his third season with Pittsburgh and he’ll be getting a lot of time with Crosby on the top line. He’s scored 21 points in each of the two post-season runs with the Penguins, which was especially impressive as he played just 12 games last year. Last year, he also had 48 points in the regular season. He went on a couple of really long cold streaks last season and if he can avoid those, his ceiling could be around 60 points. Starting from December 2nd of last season, he had 18 games in a 19-game stretch without a goal. In that 19 game stretch, he had just five points. He’s a player who can get close to 30 goals if he scores consistently.
We should see a return to form this season for Murray after he struggled last season. Before a very treacherous season for him, he put up a .923 save percentage in 2016-17 and .930 in 2015-16. In the team’s two previous Stanley Cup runs, he was at a .923 save percentage in 2016 and .937 in 2017. When he’s on, there aren’t too many goaltenders in the league who are better than him. He’s said that he needs to work on his glove hand as he’s been beaten there quite a few times over his young career. He also wants to stay healthy as he’s missed quite a bit of time the last few seasons with some injuries. For his career at 5V5, his save percentage is at .923. He was over .930 in 2016 and 2017. Having Matt Murray being back to his normal self this season will go a long way for the Penguins in terms of contending.
The Penguins will make the playoffs for a 13th straight year barring something unforeseen as they’re all-in again this season for the Stanley Cup. They’ll finish somewhere in the top three for the Metropolitan Division and likely eclipse 100 points yet again. Another second-round meeting with the Washington Capitals looks very likely, if not inevitable after these past few seasons. Look for Pittsburgh to make a deep run in the playoffs as they’re coming off well-rested this summer.
Main Photo: WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 10: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Washington Capitals during the first period at Capital One Arena on November 10, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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