Puck Drop Preview: 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins

2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins
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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins.

2020-2021 Pittsburgh Penguins

2019-2020 Season

Pittsburgh had another good regular season before the pause and then followed it up with their second straight postseason embarrassment. For the regular season, the Penguins finished third in the Metropolitan Division with 86 points in 69 games. That was good for a 40-23-6 record and they were on pace to eclipse the 100 point mark for the fifth straight year.

They had to deal with a ton of injuries throughout the season, and that included Sidney Crosby‘s sports hernia. He was sidelined for six weeks after undergoing core muscle surgery in mid-November. The team also had to deal with big injuries to their defense, which included both Brian Dumoulin and John Marino being out at the same time. Marino was dealing with the broken cheek while Dumoulin was out with an ankle injury. That forced head coach Mike Sullivan to deploy Jack Johnson on the top pair a lot of the time, which never worked. Despite that, this is still a very good team that was a top 10 in scoring for the season.

After the season resumed with the return to play, the Penguins faced the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They lost the series in four games, despite outplaying the Canadiens in the first three games. It didn’t help that Carey Price decided to turn back time and play like the 2015 version of himself. The play of the Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson pairing was also a disaster as they bled chances each time they were on the ice. Pittsburgh ended up going into this offseason with a lot more questions than answers.

2020 offseason

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford promised three things for this offseason: making changes, getting younger, and getting faster. He definitely fulfilled the promise of making change as he made some big trades. First, he acquired Kasperi Kapanen from the Toronto Maple Leafs and sent a package the other way headlined by the No. 15 overall pick. In his mind, that also went towards getting younger and faster since Kapanen is only 24 and one of the fastest players in the league.

After that, Rutherford traded fan-favorite and Stanley Cup hero Patric Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers. In exchange, the team got defenseman Mike Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour. The trade sent a shockwave through the Penguins fanbase as some just didn’t see this move coming. It looked to be more of improving a weakness on the team than taking out a long-tenured forward.

Jack Johnson was also bought out after playing two years with the team. He posted a sub 47 percent CF% in both seasons he was there and was out-chanced each game. The writing had been on the wall for a while with his release. In free agency, they signed forwards Evan Rodrigues and Mark Jankowski to one-year deals at $700K. Both were moves to shore up the forward depth before the team signed defenseman Cody Ceci to a one-year deal. He’s going to get a shot as the No. 6 defenseman, despite his poor on-ice results. He was below 50 percent again for his possession this past season and just wasn’t good in the offensive zone.

Finally, the team locked up rookie sensation John Marino to a six-year contract on Sunday. The deal has an AAV of $4.4M per season.

Lineup projections

Forwards

Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Kasperi Kapanen

Jason ZuckerEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust

Jared McCann – Mark Jankowski – Evan Rodrigues

Zach Aston-Reese (when he returns) – Teddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Top Six

Pittsburgh has one of the best top two lines in hockey going into this season. It’s obviously headlined by the two superstars as they’re still two of the best players in the league. Malkin had a dominant season for Pittsburgh in 2019-20 as he posted 74 points in 55 games. He was playing at a Hart Trophy level while Crosby was out with his hernia and just kept chugging along when he returned. According to data tracked by Corey Sznajder, Malkin ranked in the 100th percentile for shot assists in 314 minutes tracked. He also was in the 97th percentile for controlled zone entries per 60 and the 95th percentile for controlled entry percentage. He was just an absolute force at 5V5 for the Penguins as no one could take the puck off his stick. If he plays at that level again this season, they’re going to be a tough out.

A rebound for Crosby?

Crosby is still arguably the best player in the world and not done yet. He again averaged a point per game last season and likely will again this coming season. Crosby ranked in the 100th percentile for shot assists and then the 82nd percentile for zone entries per 60 minutes. While his game is still elite, he’ll probably still have more to give for this season. His GF% was just 50 percent this past season and his high-danger chance ratio was just 123 for and 120 against. That’s a far cry from his 2019 season where his high-danger ratio was 293 for and 207 against. His GF% was also at 65.6 percent that year as he put up 100 points and got fourth in the Selke voting. Despite being a year older, his numbers should go back closer to where they were during 2018-19.

The rest

Elsewhere in the top six, Pittsburgh has Jake Guentzel who’s turning into one of the best goal scorers in the league. In the four seasons he’s been in the NHL, he has 98 goals and had 20 in 39 games last year before getting hurt. He has great chemistry with both Crosby and Malkin and is projected to get even better for this season. They also have Bryan Rust, who had the best season of his career last year. He was on pace for 30 goals before the season was paused and was a force next to Malkin. Rust had 56 points in 55 games and while it’s unlikely he does that again, he should still be good for 20 goals and 40-45 points this season.

Finally, the last two players are Zucker and Kapanen. Zucker was perhaps the Penguins best player in the RTP as he had two goals in the four games. He also averaged nearly a point per game in the 15 regular-season games with Pittsburgh. A big season for him could be in the cards as he gets more acquainted with the team. Kapanen is the big wild card here as Pittsburgh is hoping to get the 2018-19 version of him. That year, he had 20 goals and 44 points in 78 games. Last season though, his play regressed as he had just 13 goals and 36 points. We’ll have to see how he does playing with one of the best winger-center duos in the league.

Bottom Six

This is where one of the big questions comes into play for Pittsburgh. Who’s going to score the goals on their bottom two lines besides Jared McCann? He’ll be playing left wing on the third line next to Jankowski and likely Rodrigues. McCann had 14 goals and 35 points last season, though only one of them came in his last 23 games. They’ll be hoping that Jankowski can help pitch in as he’s just two seasons removed from scoring 14 and 17 goals respectively. For Rodrigues, he’ll have his first true shot to stay in the lineup and provide value at both ends of the ice.

The fourth line (when Aston-Reese is healthy) is usually the Penguins shutdown line. All three players suppress shots at an elite level and Sullivan always deploys them when the Penguins are protecting a lead. Blueger has the best shot to provide more offense of the three. He had nine goals and 22 points in his first full season with the team and is poised for more. If both lines can take some of the load off the top six, that’s one less thing the team will have to worry about.

Defence

Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang

Marcus Pettersson – John Marino

Mike Matheson – Cody Ceci

Extras: Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel

Top Four

This is one of the best top four’s in the league. Letang is coming off a 15-goal 44 point season while being in the 95th percentile for controlled exits per 60. He was electric at both ends of the ice and paired with the steady Dumoulin, they form one of the best top pairings in hockey. Dumoulin was hurt most of last season with the ankle so having him back fully healthy does wonders for both Letang and the entire defense.

Marino is coming off an outstanding rookie season where he was the team’s best defenseman in their own zone. He was elite at suppressing shots which led to teams just getting nothing each time he was on the ice. If it weren’t for his broken cheek, he would’ve had more love for being a Calder finalist. Joining him will be Marcus Pettersson who’s a reliable No. 4. He moves the puck up the ice well and posted a strong 52.2 percent CF% last season.

Bottom Pair

The bottom pair is better for Pittsburgh this season but that’s a low bar to cross. Matheson’s offensive ability is much-needed on that pair as he was in the 90th percentile or better for shots per 60 and controlled entries per 60. His defense though, is the big issue. He gave up 426 scoring chances while he was on the ice and 177 high-danger chances to go along with it last season. If he can clean that area of his game up, he could turn into a reliable No. 5.

For Ceci, this is a big reclamation project as he’s nothing special both offensively and defensively. If he ends up not being good, however, they can just stick him in the press box and put Ruhwedel in his place.

Goalies

Tristan Jarry

Casey DeSmith

The goalie tandem looks a bit different as Jarry has taken the reigns. It’s a bit of a risk since he only played in 33 games last season but it was the smartest move they could’ve made. He had a .921 save percentage during that timeframe and almost willed the Penguins to a victory in Game 4 of the RTP. He’s also making almost half of what Murray is making in Ottawa. The position is very volatile so if it works, you awesome, but if not, you look bad.

Backing him up will be DeSmith who only has 50 games played in the league. If an injury happens to Jarry, they’ll be in deep trouble.

Players to Watch

John Marino

If Marino’s offense comes out this season, look out. He already is the best defensive defenseman on the team and sees the ice super well. He’ll also likely get more power-play minutes on the second unit this season too as Letang runs the top unit. There’s big-time potential that he can show the franchise and the fans that he’s the heir to Letang as his contract is almost up. A 40 point season for him isn’t out of the question.

Kasperi Kapanen

Pittsburgh is hoping that he can be the right-winger that Crosby has lacked having the last two seasons. He’s one of the most straight-line players in hockey and has a wicked release to go along with it. They paid a hefty price to get him out of Toronto and Rutherford is betting that he’ll return to his 2019 form. If he doesn’t though, the team will be wishing that they took an impact player with the 15th pick.

Prediction for 2020-21 Penguins

As long as Pittsburgh stays healthy, they’ll make the playoffs. The East division is going to be a blood bath but they have the talent to get through it and potentially go on a very deep playoff run. Their bottom six is going to have to bail the top six out though on some nights as those top two lines can’t score all their goals. If Jarry is able to give them even just average goaltending, they’ll be in better shape than they were this past season at that position. Bet against the Penguins at your own peril, but I have a feeling they finish top three in the division and make a deep Stanley Cup run.

(All data via Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and All Three Zones Comparison Tool via Corey Sznajder).