Although the Pittsburgh Penguins had a short break in their schedule due to the New Jersey Devils overflowing their COVID-19 list, the storylines do not stop around this team. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly with this team just a few weeks into the 2021 NHL season. Today, we examine three Pittsburgh Penguins storylines impacting this team right now.
Pittsburgh Penguins Storylines to watch
Reinforcements Are Coming
The Defence Core
The injuries keep hitting the Pittsburgh Penguins with Brian Dumoulin, Evan Rodrigues, and Juuso Riikola currently on LTIR. John Marino has just come off the COVID-19 list, hopefully, to stay. As he’s already received his $26.5 million contract extension, Marino’s wish-list now includes continuing negative COVID-19 tests and more playing time with Pierre-Oliver Joesph. Marcus Pettersson is out “week-to-week” and has not yet been spotted at a Penguins practice.
It’s not all bad news, though. Top defenseman Kris Letang is back at practice after missing just a game with an undisclosed but presumed minor injury. Mike Matheson practiced in a full-contact jersey on February 4th, signalling his return to the lineup may be nigh. Getting back a pair of defensemen would be a huge boost to the AHL-level group the Penguins have been icing lately. No offence intended to the Kevin Czuczman’s of the world.
Letang and Matheson may be the two swiftest skaters on the Penguins blue line. Inserting them would drastically improve the ability of the Penguins to activate their defensemen more often. Head Coach Mike Sullivan specifically mentioned this as something new they have tried to implement more this season. Mobile, puck-moving defensemen are the coveted prototype in today’s NHL. The Penguins find themselves blessed with quite a few of them, but they keep getting hurt.
Last season, Zach Aston-Reese finally showed the league he belongs in the National Hockey League. Some defensive metrics rated him as one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. The Penguins’ bottom-6 has been fine, but ZAR can help it improve vastly in the defensive zone. I’d like to see the Penguins try:
Mark Jankowski sits in favour of Sam Lafferty as Jankowski has seemingly run into the figurative wall and crashed even at his unfortunately slow speed. He had a nice few games to start the season but is now at the bottom of the team statistically when it comes to driving play.
Ongoing GM Search
A Tribute to Jim Rutherford
Three-time Stanley Cup Champion and Hall of Fame member Jim Rutherford’s abrupt resignation shocked the hockey world. One of the most active general managers in the league, he made over 50 trades in his seven years in Pittsburgh. In the span of roughly ten months, Rutherford put his stamp on the Penguins in so significant a way it would alter the style of play league-wide. GMJR put an emphasis on speed, tenacity, and work ethic.
He acquired Patric Hornqvist, Ian Cole, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and Justin Schultz. Promoting Head Coach Mike Sullivan and calling up youngsters from Wilkes-Barre Scranton like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Matt Murray gave the Penguins an infusion of youthful energy. These additions easily gave the Penguins the fastest team in the league top to bottom.
Veteran leadership from Ron Hainsey, Eric Fehr, and Mark Streit coupled with an elite goaltending tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and the rookie Murray made the Penguins a force to be reckoned with. Two Stanley Cup banners from 2016 and 2017 speak to his legacy.
For all you did,
Thank you GMJR!
The Next Step
Back to the present, and Pittsburgh Penguins Co-Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle along with President David Morehouse are searching for a new General manager. Over twenty names have been linked to the Penguins since the void was created. A few candidates have backed out of interviewing, narrowing the list down. A few intriguing names are former Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall, NHL Now analyst Kevin Weekes, former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, former Penguins Assistant GM Jason Karmanos, current New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald, and the Penguins own interim-GM Patrick Allvin. The Penguins have stated they would like to find a GM in the next couple of weeks. We will soon see how this plays out and who the Penguins upper management selects.
The Goaltending Tandem
So far it seems Penguins Goalie Coach Mike Buckley has his work cut out for him. The Penguins goaltending has been shaky but has had shown occasional flashes of sunlight through the largely overcast, metaphorical sky. Casey DeSmith has the better base stats so far, with 2.85 GAA and .882 SV percentage. It should be noted that he has started all four of his games against the New York Rangers, going 3-1 in those contests.
Tristan Jarry needs to step up and prove he’s the goalie he showed he can be last season. He does not necessarily need to be All-Star Caliber, but he does need to improve. He needs to play more aggressively and control his rebounds. A big save on the penalty kill would help too.
It will be interesting to see how Mike Sullivan deploys his goalies in the upcoming games. Six of the next eleven games are against the offensively-challenged New York Islanders and four feature the rival Washington Capitals. This seems somewhat reminiscent of late last season. Although Tristan Jarry had played better overall, Murray got the starts against the playoff-calibre teams.
The Islanders have lost five consecutive games, so the Penguins need to get the monkey off their collective back and pick up some crucial points in these next few weeks. The goaltending will go a long way to determining whether or not the penguins can put some distance between themselves and the four teams pursuing them for the final playoff spot in the MassMutual East Division.