Puck Drop Preview: 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins

2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins
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Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins.

2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins

2020-21 Season

The Penguins started out a bit slow during last season but really turned it on starting in March. After they took two out of three against the Philadelphia Flyers, they ran the table the rest of the season and got first in the East Division. It was a heck of an achievement considering the injuries they went through at one time. They were without half of their top nine forwards. Evgeni Malkin missed almost all of the second half of the season due to a knee injury but that still didn’t slow the Penguins down. They were able to get good enough goaltending and have the rest of the lineup step up and finished 37-16-3.

That first-place finish brought them a date with the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Pittsburgh ended up being the better team in expected goals, high-danger chances for, Corsi, and scoring chances against. But they were dug in by the greatest equalizer in a playoff series: goaltending. Tristan Jarry had a .888 save percentage and allowed 7.9 goals above expected. In contrast, Ilya Sorokin had a .922 save percentage and saved o.7 goals above expected. That’s where the series was lost for the Penguins. It sent them into another early offseason after the first-round exit.

2021 Offseason

Pittsburgh’s offseason was quieter than normal and frankly, that was probably for the best. One of the moves doesn’t look great based on optics, but gone are the days where Jim Rutherford would throw something at the wall and hope that it sticks. Ron Hextall is the antithesis of Rutherford and mainly made moves around the edges of the roster.

Before that though, he traded forward Jared McCann to the Toronto Maple Leafs (before he was taken by Seattle) in a move that wasn’t popular within the fan base. For starters, McCann finished with 14 goals and 32 points in 48 games. He was a force on the top power-play unit when Malkin was out. He also finished the season with 3.16 points-per-60 in all situations, which was second on the team. At 5v5, it was a small step down, but McCann was still electric and finished with a 2.36 points-per-60. That was good for fourth on the team.

The Signings

After he was traded, it was announced that Evgeni Malkin would be out indefinitely after he underwent knee surgery. That made the decision to let McCann go even stranger as he was a prime candidate to step in for him. Pittsburgh also lost Brandon Tanev as he was Seattle’s pick in the expansion draft. Even though he was better offensively this past season and had a lot of great moments; it was still a blessing in disguise to get his contract off the books. In his place comes Brock McGinn on a four-year deal worth $2.75 million per season. He’s expected to fill the void left by Tanev. And if last year is any indication, he should have no problem doing that. He finished with eight goals and 13 points. Plus, he was on the ice for 53.6 percent of the shot attempts at 5V5.

Hextall also signed Danton Heinen to a one-year contract and Brian Boyle to a PTO. Heinen is looking to bounce back after a rough couple of seasons in Anaheim, while Boyle is fighting for a roster spot in wake of Sidney Crosby‘s recent surgery. Crosby underwent surgery on his left wrist in early September. He is expected to miss at least the first week of the regular season.

Lineup Projections: 

Forwards

Jake GuentzelJeff CarterBryan Rust

Jason ZuckerEvan RodriguesKasperi Kapanen

Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrock McGinn

Drew O’ConnorBrian BoyleDominik Simon

Top Six

This obviously looks a lot different compared to what everyone usually has seen for the last 15 years. That’s what happens when both of the top centres get hurt. Luckily, Crosby will be back well before Malkin so the center depth should improve pretty rapidly. For now, though, it’s Carter manning Crosby’s spot with the team’s best two wingers. Guentzel will look to have his second 40-goal season of his career. He’s quickly becoming one of the premier goal scorers in this league.

Rust will be going into a contract year as he looks to potentially get $6 million+ on the open market after this season. He’s been that good the last couple of years. He’s scored nearly 30 goals both times and has been on the ice for 70.1 percent of the expected goals per Natural Stat Trick. Going back to Carter, it’ll be hard for him to score 16 points in his first 20 games again. Athough, he should still be a key factor once he’s moved down the lineup.

Second Line

Kapanen will be an interesting case for Pittsburgh this season. He scored 11 goals and had 30 points last season but also shot 16.2 percent, which is a career-high. If that regresses back to the mean (11 percent), that could spell trouble for him as the rest of his underlying’s weren’t that strong.

For reference, he was only on the ice for 47.5 percent of the expected goals and hardly broke even in shot attempts. If he’s able to get those up though, it could be an even bigger season for him. Rodrigues will be a stop-gap for the time being but he shouldn’t be slept on. He broke even in shot attempts last season. He has always been a player that doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. He’s a good playmaker and is strong in the defensive zone but that said, he works best in the bottom six on a contending team.

Zucker is trying to get back to his 2019-20 form. He had 12 points in 15 games and was on the ice for over 54 percent of the shot attempts. He didn’t shoot the puck nearly as much last season and overthought everything, which led to his struggles. Pittsburgh is hoping a full offseason will get him back to the level that they know he can play at.

Bottom Six

Pittsburgh will try their best to reform the vaunted Aston-Reese-Blueger-Tanev line the best they can as McGinn will take Tanev’s spot. It’s likely to be the team’s shutdown line that they can throw out in any situation and succeed. Mike Sullivan loved using it all of last season and the headliner on that line isn’t Blueger or McGinn. Aston-Reese has been one of the best defensive forwards in the league since he came up full-time.

It’s time he gets the respect he deserves. He played 558 minutes at 5v5 in 2020-21 and the Penguins expected goals against per 60 while he was on the ice was just 2.01. Absolutely nothing was getting to the net while he was playing.

Blueger is still a good player in his own right and matched his production from 2019-20. He finished 2020-21 with seven goals and 22 points in 43 games while also being on the ice for 52.3 percent of the actual goals. For a player who was on the fourth line, you take that any day of the week.

A New Fourth Line

The fourth line isn’t much to write home about. Simon could be a sneaky player if he gets back to his 2019-20 form. He always drives fans crazy due to never scoring. But he’s always silky with the puck and is a fluid skater. He had a goal in the team’s preseason win over Buffalo on Friday night. He has looked sharp in camp as well. Simon is also a player that can move up and down the lineup when needed. But as of now, he’ll likely start on the fourth line.

Boyle and O’Connor will likely occupy the other two spots. The latter has been much more noticeable this go around. He was a step slow last season with his skating and vision on the ice but he’s definitely worked on those aspects of his game a lot this offseason. He looks faster and more crisp with the puck and he’s always been a player that’s intrigued the coaching staff. As for Boyle, he’ll win the 4C job out of camp, though his days will be numbered until Crosby comes back.

Defence

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Marcus Pettersson John Marino

Mike Matheson Chad Ruhwedel

The Penguins’ defence looks almost identical compared to last season and that’s because there’s only one change. Cody Ceci signed with the Edmonton Oilers and taking his place should be Ruhwedel. He’s in competition with Mark Friedman for that sixth spot and he’s the favorite to get it. Sure the coaching staff and management like Friedman’s game. But it’s been Ruhwedel getting most of the reps in that spot during camp.

The numbers also suggest that he should get the spot as he was -10.3 percent for expected goals against last season. In layman’s terms, nothing was getting to the net while he was on the ice and that’s exactly what a contending team should want out of their sixth defenceman.

Top and Middle Pairing

The top two pairs should be unchanged as both were fantastic last season. Letang and Dumoulin work wonders together and it especially brings out the best in Letang. He finished with seven goals and 45 points and was on the ice for nearly 58 percent of the actual goals at 5V5. The fact that he’s still doing this in his age 34 season is a testament to how great he still is.

Marino will look to get back to his rookie form and playing with Pettersson gives him the best chance at that. When they play together, Marino can do the heavy lifting by carrying the puck up the ice while Pettersson can sit back a bit and play more defensively. It’s a pairing that Sullivan loves to throw out to suppress shots and that shouldn’t be expected to change this season.

Pettersson gets a ton of flack for being “too soft around the net” or “not good defensively” but none of it is accurate. When he was on the ice, he was -8.4% for expected goals against. Much like Ruhwedel, not much got through to the net so that should quiet some of his doubters coming into this season.

Goalies

Tristan Jarry

Casey DeSmith

Pittsburgh’s goaltending needs to be a lot better if they want to go anywhere this season. Case closed, end of story. It’s what got them eliminated in the playoffs but Hextall is giving both of these players a second chance. He hired Andy Chiodo to be the new goaltending coach after Mike Buckley was let go and the organization seems to be putting all its eggs in his basket.

Chiodo is a different kind of coach as he’s more hands-on than Buckley was. The team is hoping that he can tweak some things in both Jarry and DeSmith so they improve this season. Jarry will need to answer the doubters a bit more as he allowed almost 12 goals above expected in 39 games last season. That’s not good enough for someone who makes $3.5 million per year.

DeSmith could get some more starts if he falters though as he actually saved 2.2 goals above expected last season. Had he not gotten hurt before the playoffs, he likely would’ve started Game 6 against the Islanders. That said, they still both have to better this season if the team wants to go anywhere.

Players to Watch

It would be too easy to put the goaltenders here. A lot of eyes will be on Heinen though as he’s coming off a couple of rough years with the Anaheim Ducks. He never seemed to be a fit there and played his most minutes with Jakov Silverberg and Adam Henrique during last season. When this team is healthy, he’ll get massive upgrades over both players and Mike Sullivan’s system seems to be a better fit as well.

When he’s on his game, he’s firing a lot of pucks to the net and driving play. In the Penguins’ first preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Heinen was on the ice for 16 shot attempts and just four against.

If he’s able to continue that (especially when the centers come back), he could wind up being one of the steals of the offseason. Don’t be surprised if he goes back to being a half-a-point per game player like he was with Boston.

Zucker is also a player who should have a lot of eyes on him. It was mentioned a bit earlier on, but he struggled badly last season and finished with a 13.4 percent shooting percentage; which was a major step down from his 18.7 percent the year before. It’s hard to repeat that for a second season but he also got way too in his head a lot of times while playing.

Zucker would come down on odd-man rushes and force a pass when it wasn’t there and wouldn’t shoot enough in obvious shooting situations. He said as such when he spoke to the media about a week ago as he hopes to get back to scoring more consistently. Getting him back to his 2019-20 level would give the Penguins another dangerous weapon that they need to make another run.

Prediction for 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins

Now more than ever, this team will go as far as the core players take them. They’re still deep at forward and return most of the defence. But the stars are going to have to play like their usual selves if they want to go on another championship run. Crosby will be back sooner rather than later. Mike Sullivan usually does some of his best coaching when the team faces adversity.

Because of that, they’re going to survive until Malkin comes back and then potentially run the table the rest of the way. Pittsburgh will make the playoffs and has the ability to do some damage; but the goaltending has to be at least average for the latter to happen.

(All data via Natural Stat Trick, MoneyPuck, HockeyViz, and Hockey-Reference)

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