The Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone a couple of drama-filled seasons since they last lifted the Stanley Cup in 2017. There was the dead-legged, “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” attempt at the three-peat in 2018 and the tumult and lack of buy-in waste of 2019. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made few but significant changes to the Penguins roster, and head coach Mike Sullivan went back to basics.
Whereas last season could be measured in things the Penguins got wrong, even if this season is over can be measured by things the Penguins got right. Injuries hit the Penguins harder than any other team until injuries beset the Columbus Blue Jackets in February. The Penguins survived and thrived because of several critical decisions they got right. The same choices should also bolster the Penguins next season, too.
You may notice an overarching theme, too. The primary thing the Pittsburgh Penguins got right for 2019-20 was a return to a simple, honest game built on speed. As Scotty Bowman told PHN, “Speed burns, and (Sullivan) makes it burn.”
These are the decisions which created that dynamic, in no particular order:
Top 3 Things Pittsburgh Penguins Got Right
1. Jason Zucker
Paging past the obligatory, reflexive and misguided Jack Johnson references, the Pittsburgh Penguins roster construction was a feather in Rutherford’s cap. He didn’t initially get his primary target, Jason Zucker, via trade. Former Penguins winger Phil Kessel blocked that trade in July. Rutherford kept working and eventually snared Zucker for what turned out to be a market value deal, or slightly less.
Top-line left winger Jake Guentzel was injured on Dec. 30 and would have missed the remainder of the NHL regular season plus most of the playoffs. The Penguins desperately needed some scoring power, especially with Sidney Crosby on the top line. Zucker quickly proved to be a smooth addition to the Penguins top-six crew at a critical time.
Zucker’s speed and willingness to shoot makes him a suitable partner for either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Zucker’s ability to play a puck retrieval game means he could play anywhere in the Penguins lineup.
Zucker’s first 15 games in black and gold have been a bit streaky. Penguins coaches are working with Zucker to adapt to the Penguins system and style. Head coach Mike Sullivan previously explained that means, “He’s at his best when he’s skating.”
Zucker has 12 points (6g, 6a) in 15 games, and seven of those points (3g, 4a) came in the last seven games. He’ll be a Penguin for a few more years, too.
2. Brandon Tanev and the Turbo Line
Remember the vociferous criticism of Jim Rutherford when the Penguins signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract? Quite amazing how many people liked that signing at the time, now, isn’t it?
Tanev has been part of the Penguins resurgence and lurch toward a speed game. His relentless speed, puck pressure, and physicality have made Tanev an emerging fan favorite. If he scores a couple of playoff goals, he’ll be a bonafide fan fav.
Tanev hasn’t been alone. The Penguins fourth line, which functioned as a third line for much of the season with Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese, has been a force. They don’t score many goals, but that’s not their job. The line has often been tasked with shutting down the opponent’s top line. And they’ve been successful. They’ve also been successful at generating an attack and creating momentum with puck possession so that the top lines can play in the offensive zone.
The line was formed early in the season and was the only constant in a never-ending stream of injury or coach induced line shuffles. And the line stayed together for a good reason.
Interestingly, the line has not been as effective without Aston-Reese, who was week-to-week with an injury before the pandemic break.
3. Tristan Jarry
It may not have been a unanimous decision. We still believe there were voices heard during the decision-making process who preferred Casey DeSmith. However, the Penguins got it right when they kept Tristan Jarry. He carried the depleted Penguins through November and December and did so at a level to earn a berth in the NHL All-Star Game.
Whatever happens with Jarry’s career, no one can take that away.
Jarry could not possibly maintain the .940 save percentage and sub-2.00 goals against average, which got him into the NHL showcase. Those would be ridiculous numbers even in the 1990s clutch-and-grab era of suppressed offense. The essential thing Jarry did this season was help elevate the Penguins standings and playoff chances, even as injuries threatened to submarine everything.
Jarry stole more than a few points. He is currently 20-12-1 with a respectable 2.43 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.
I blame Jack Johnson.
3A. John Marino
Credit scout Kevin Stevens for tooting Marino’s horn for a year. Credit Rutherford for snagging Marino for a bag of chips (a conditional sixth-round pick), and credit the Penguins coaches for knowing how to use Marino.
Marino, 22, is easily the Penguins rookie of the year and one of the best rookie defensemen in the NHL. He won’t garner much Calder Trophy consideration because of players such as Quinn Hughes in Vancouver and Cale Makar in Colorado. Still, Marino has established himself as legit NHL top-four defenseman.
The Penguins sent Marino to the AHL before the start of the regular season, but he was back within a week. The Penguins sheltered Marino with third-pair responsibilities and kept him with stay-at-home defender Jack Johnson.
It was a good introduction to the NHL, and Marino grew and grew as a player. He never lacked for confidence as he told PHN in September, his goal was to make the NHL team this season. It seemed like a kid talking back then. But it wasn’t.
Marino’s smooth-skating, vision, and puck poise will allow him to stick around for quite a while.
The Penguins could have followed the script and sent the rookie to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the season, but they let Marino elbow his way into the NHL, which also created a logjam on the blueline. Eventually, Rutherford broke the logjam when he traded Erik Gudbranson to Anaheim.
The Penguins got the Marino decision right, and as a result, their blue line has a better foundation going forward than it has had in a long time.
Stay safe, kids.