The end came swiftly and quietly. The promise of a Stanley Cup ride was gone and the locker room did not wreak of anger or sadness. The Pittsburgh Penguins landed far short of their 2018-19 goal and their potential. The problems and the players who may not be around for another chance have filled the pages of this outlet and others. There are also a handful of Penguins players who must rebound from this season and have more than better luck next year.
Rebound is a little bit of a play on words as the Penguins did not create enough rebounds this season, either. For the push to play hard and play in the low zone, there were still precious few rebounds. Stylistically, the Penguins team will need to pick their preferred game and stick with it.
If the Penguins can stick to a game, several players on the list will not only have improved numbers but be the cause of others having improved numbers, too.
5. Bryan Rust
Rust admitted to PHN that his new contract “may have subconsciously” changed his mental approach or applied further pressure. It wasn’t a great start to the season, for sure. Rust had one goal in his first 29 games. It wasn’t until he busted out with a hat trick on December 12 that his season truly began.
Rust scored 10 goals from Dec. 12 to Jan. 8, which was more than half of his 18 goal total. After Feb. 1, Rust scored just four goals. The Penguins do not rely on Rust for offensive contributions but with his new $14 million contract, they need more consistent production. Rust played with the best Penguins centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Rust has shown offensive growth since breaking through in 2016. He even passes the puck now. Consistency will be the next challenge and necessary if he is to anchor a spot in the top six. The Penguins figure to be short on stat sheet numbers from their wings next season with a possible Phil Kessel trade. Rust will be called upon to fill some of that void.
4. Justin Schultz
It was a wasted season for the Penguins second pairing right side defenseman. He suffered a broken leg just four games into the season and was not able to hit his full stride for the remainder of the season. No pun intended.
After a monster 2016-17 in which he scored 51 points (12g, 39a), Shultz inked a three-year deal which pays him $5.5 million annually and next season he will enter the final year of that deal. He hasn’t come close to that 51 point outburst. Though he did post 15 points (2g, 13a) in 29 games last season.
The Penguins will need a big season from Schultz because the rest of the Penguins blue line (beyond Schultz and Kris Letang) is not offensively gifted. Or even offensively productive. Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson, and Erik Gudbranson combined for only six goals. Olli Maatta also scored only one goal, too.
Fortunately, the Penguins defensive corps knows how to play defense, but they will need more ink on the stat sheet from Schultz, especially with a salary which is north of $5 million.
3. Jack Johnson
Johnson fought through difficult circumstances in the first part of 2018-19. A new team in flux, his position in flux, new partners on a rotating basis and forwards who treated the defensive zone like the Squirrel Hill tunnels at rush hour; as something to be mocked and avoided.
Johnson was just three years removed from a 40-point season but with the Penguins he buckled down and focused on the defensive zone. His second half was a marked improvement, defensively. After Pettersson arrived via trade on Dec. 8, Johnson was on the ice for nine more goals scored than allowed.
However, Johnson only had two assists after the All-Star break. He must pick up his offensive game, too–at least a little bit. The Penguins will need more if he stays on the second pairing.
2. Patric Hornqvist
The Penguins resident Viking went cold when the calendar turned to 2019. After 15 goals in his first 35 games, he had just three markers after Jan. 6. That includes even strength and power play goals.
Hornqvist admitted that he allowed frustration to make the slump worse. The Penguins need their crazy, net-front disruption to be in full force next season. Another down year for Hornqvist could be huge trouble as he has four more years on his contract with a healthy $5.3 million annual price tag.
Hornqvist’s first half is likely a more accurate barometer of his current game and value to the Penguins, but he can’t dry up as he did in the second half. The 32-year-old failed to reach 20-goals in a full season for the first time in his career. The Penguins hope it is the last time.
The Penguins need more offensive from the wings and Hornqvist will be front and center in that battle. Pun intended.
1. Evgeni Malkin
Not much more needs to be said or written on the Malkin subject until more developments occur. Malkin posted more than a point per game which has some corners of the internet to argue he had a good season. However, not Malkin or the Penguins would agree. Malkin is not only capable of greater production, but he is also capable of better defense and playing harder. He is capable of limiting his turnovers and playing smarter, winning hockey.
The Penguins need all of that.
An engaged and eager Malkin with buy-in to the team system will pay greater dividends than any player the Penguins could acquire and that is THE great hope.
A Malkin rebound would mean the most to the 2019-20 Penguins.