Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, 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 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins.
2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins failed to defend their 2017 Stanley Cup win during the 2017-18 season. This end to their Stanley Cup-winning streak gave them a newfound motivation for the 2018-19 season, as they fought to regain their championship status. While on the trek to accomplish this goal, the team saw a hefty amount of both highs-and-lows.
Jake Guentzel, the Penguins highly-touted winger, defiantly met the hefty expectations set for him by fans. He recorded 76 points in 82 games, ranking him third on the team, only six points behind Phil Kessel. Of these 76 points, 40 were goals. This feat made Guentzel the first Penguins player, aside from Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, to reach the 40-goal mark since James Neal accomplished it in the 2011-12 season.
On the flip side, the team’s defence struggled miserably. They gave up scoring chances at an alarming rate. While the Penguins did make the post-season, their poor defence was their Achilles Heel. The New York Islanders took advantage of this in the first round. Through also using an amazing defence of their own, the Islanders were able to easily sweep the Penguins. For Pittsburgh fans, this was no surprise. There were simply too many weaknesses for the team headed into the series, with the defencive core looking lackluster at best. As soon as the Penguings offence was shut down, the team was simply left out to dry. It was an embarrassing series and a far cry from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Penguins teams that both managed Stanley Cup wins.
With a first-round sweep behind them, the Penguins entered the offseason with a lot of questions. Was Kessel going to be traded? What was to be done about the defencive issues? How long is the window really open for? There was surely a lot going through Jim Rutherford‘s mind after that first-round exit and he managed to answer at least two questions.
Pittsburgh ended up dealing Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes. This apparently fit into their view of a “major change.” It was reported through The Athletic that Kessel’s relationship with the coaching staff went sour, ultimately leading to the deal. With that said, the team also wanted to establish a younger locker room, something they also accomplished in the deal.
Alex Galchenyuk was the main piece coming back to Pittsburgh. The 25-year-old has one year remaining on his current contract. The Penguins will hope that he can try and replace a bit of Kessel’s production, though that’s easier said than done. Replacing a point-per-game player of the past couple seasons in Kessel is very challenging, especially with how good he was on the power play. That’s where Pittsburgh will miss Kessel the most, with the team’s man-advantage practically running through the forward.
Pittsburgh also dealt defensemen Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun. The Penguins clearly felt a fresh start would be best for Maatta, who has struggled to reach his true potential. While a respectable mindset, the deal could very well come around to bite the Penguins. In Maatta’s role will now be Jack Johnson, who looked terrible last season.
With that said, Kahun is a terrific return. He is a versatile, skillful 24-year-old that will make an impact throughout the lineup. In his rookie NHL season last year, Kahun set an admirable 37 points in 82 games, often lining up among the Blackhawks top-six. His playing style perfectly compliments the Penguins roster, meaning he could be in store for a great tenure with Pittsburgh.
The Penguins also signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract on July 1st with an annual cap hit of $3.5M. Tanev is a good player but that term is way too much for a bottom-six depth player. He had 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games last season for the Winnipeg Jets. He’s going to be fine for the first few years of this contract but his play could very well drop off during the second half of the deal.
Mike Sullivan was also re-signed as the team’s head coach, extended through the 2023-24 season. They also reeled in small-names such as Andrew Aggozino and David Warskofky and re-signed players like Teddy Blueger, Zach-Aston Reese, and Joseph Blandisi.
2019-20 Penguins Projected Lineup
Jake Guentzel- Sidney Crosby –Jared McCann
Alex Galchenyuk – Evgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Brandon Tanev – Teddy Blueger – Dominik Kahun
The top six is still very, very good for the Penguins even without Kessel. Guentzel and Crosby are one of the best duos in the league on the first line and they had great chemistry with McCann when he came over from Florida. McCann is likely to bounce around the lineup but has earned an extended stay alongside Crosby and Guentzel. The trio appeared in 11 games together last season, totaling just under 120 minutes of even-strength ice time. In that span, they recorded a collective 54.4 corsi-for percentage and a 60.99 expected-goals-for percentage, both going to show how dominant they were.
The second line has tremendous potential but leans on the need for a bounce-back from Malkin. While, yes, the star centreman had 72 points in 68 games last year, he looked fairly far from his peak-potential. This wasn’t helped along by the injuries he suffered throughout the campaign. Luckily, he’ll surely be flanked by Rust and Galchenyuk, two players with tremendously high potential. With that said, both wingers are equally in need of a rebound season, searching for the success they flaunted in prior years. Playing alongside each other could be the key to creating a very strong trio.
This is one of the better bottom six’s the Penguins have had in the last couple of years. Bjugstad will return as the team’s third-line centre, a promising sign for the team. He had nine goals and 14 points in 32 games, after coming over from the Panthers. He also had a corsi-for percentage of 52.2. The 6’6″ (198 cm) forward is just one year removed from a 19 goal, 49 point campaign with Florida. With better talent around him, he could potentially get back to those numbers next year. He’s also had a full summer to get refreshed for his first full season with the Penguins. He’s very likely the Penguins answer to their third line center problems ever since Nick Bonino left.
As for Hornqvist, he needs a real bounce-back to show that last season wasn’t the start of his decline. Concussion issues also plagued him last season but even when he was in the lineup, he only had 18 goals and 37 points. Before that, he was on a streak of scoring 20 or more goals in each of the last five seasons. With four more years left on his new contract, he needs to rediscover that scoring touch or it’s going to be a steep decline for the player that he is around the net.
Hornqvist will, again, flank Bjugstad. The aging winger will clearly remain a staple of the Penguins roster but is desperate for a positive year. Concussions plagued him for most of last year, yet he still managed 37 points in 69 games. Last season was the first of his career that saw him play in more than 30 games, yet record fewer than 20 goals.
Simon will surely take up the other wing. The 25-year-old is poised for a great year, after establishing his presence in the NHL last season. He’s statistically tremendous, recording a corsi-for of 55.7 percent last year. Yet, there’s more to be desired. He netted 28 points in 71 games but could have easily tallied more if he found a way to take advantage of every scoring opportunity he received. This weird mix between solid underlying stats, yet disappointing displays on the ice, has made Simon a ‘love-or-hate’ name in Pittsburgh. If he can cash in on more opportunities, he’ll surely convince fans to feel more love than hate.
For the fourth line, Blueger steps in as the center. He’s more than ready to fill the role, tallying six goals and ten points in 28 games last season as a rookie. Next to him could very well be the two additions of Tanev and Kahun. The depth scoring that line could provide for Pittsburgh throughout the season is enormous with how well Tanev and Kahun played throughout last season.
Jack Johnson – Erik Gudbranson
This is undeniably the best part of the Penguins defense. Letang is one of the best defencemen in the league and his value to the team is impeccable. This team really doesn’t go anywhere without him in the lineup. He had 16 goals and 56 points in 65 games last season and logs over 25 minutes a night. He’s sensational and the Penguins are lucky to have him. His partner in Dumoulin is also great. Dumoulin doesn’t put up a lot of offencive numbers but his play in his own zone more than makes up for it. He’s the perfect partner for Letang and it should stay that way the whole season when both are healthy.
This is where Schultz belongs in the lineup when healthy. He’ll hope to have much a healthier season as he only appeared in 29 games last season due to a fractured ankle. Even when he came back, he didn’t look right. He also had to suffer from having to play with Johnson, who dragged him down badly. It’s partly why his corsi-for for the season was only 46 percent. Schultz finding his 2016-2017 form would go a long way in having this defence look better than it does.
After getting acquired from the Anaheim Ducks, Pettersson played in every game for Pittsburgh. He got better and better, especially in moving the puck up the ice and his work in the defencive zone. His corsi-for was above 51 percent for the time he was with Pittsburgh and it’s time to get him away from the bottom pairing. He needs to show what he can do next to Schultz in a top-four role.
This is where it’s very dicey for Pittsburgh and that’s saying it nicely. Johnson has to be sheltered at all costs this season. He’s a complete liability every time he’s on the ice and an offensive black hole. He played in every game last season in mostly top-four minutes and had just one goal and 13 points to show for it. That’s unacceptable for a player who signed a five-year contract during the 2018 summer. He’s not good in his own zone and gets smoked constantly by any opposition. It’s going to be another long season from Johnson if he’s in the lineup nightly.
Gudbranson surprised many when he came over from Vancouver. He wasn’t getting burned in his own zone and he actually brought a bit of offense. In 19 games with Pittsburgh, he had a corsi-for of 54.7 percent, which is out of this world for such an unsuspecting player. It’s a very small sample size, though, a note that helps temper expectations for next season. If he will continue his strong play, or regress back to his mediocre former-self, should be a very exciting storyline for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not much needs to be said about the Penguins goaltending situation. Murray is the clear-cut starter. He had a lackluster start to last year but made up for it in the latter half of the season. Between mid-December and the end of the year, Murray had a save percentage of .931. This is tremendous, especially considering this stat was sub .900 at the start of the season. Another strong year should be in the cards for Murray if he can stay fully healthy. DeSmith had a strong .916 save percentage in 36 games played in last season, clearly earning him the backup role again this year. Pittsburgh ended up rewarding him with a three-year extension because of it.
Players to watch
As aforementioned, this is a massive year for Schultz. After a few seasons of struggling play, he needs to prove he can make a noticeable impact on the Penguins. Even excluding the lengthy injury, last season was by far Schultz’s worst with Pittsburgh. He struggled in both ends of the ice, ultimately becoming dead weight for the Penguins. He brings a lot to the table when he’s on his game. If he wants to find any sort of success next year, he needs to find this game fast. His booming shot and swift ability to transition play were dearly missed last year. If he can return to his former glory, he provides a tremendous addition to the Pittsburgh player.
It cannot be understated how big of a season this is for Hornqvist. He’s getting the point of his career where decline seems imminent, yet he’ll surely continue the strong statistics he recorded last year. His fearlessness in the dirty areas of the ice and grittiness are clearly starting to way on him, though. If he stays injury-free, he’s a tremendous spark to the lineup. Yet, the chances of his concussions and hard-nosed playing style catching up to him are fairly high. This is a crucial fight-or-flight season for the rugged 32-year-old.
The Penguins are still a playoff group, thanks to a core group of stars leading the pack. With that said, the Metropolitan Division has gotten significantly better over the course of the season. Teams like the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders will certainly be thorns in the Penguins side, while the Carolina Hurricanes could be poised for another tremendous season. With so many names desperate for good years, the Penguins season seems to lie with the Fates for now.