Captain Sidney Crosby adopted even more intense workouts, according to those who know Crosby. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain not only wants to remain THE elite player, but his Penguins squad has been summarily dismissed from each of the last two NHL postseasons.
Technically, the Penguins’ playoff streak is intact because they were in a playoff position at the premature end of the 2019-2020 regular season and participated in the NHL Qualifying Round. Still, the Penguins didn’t make it to Round One.
And it wasn’t even close.
Since winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins have seen a steep decline in playoff performance. They advanced to Round Two in 2018 (lost in 6 to the Washington Capitals), but the New York Islanders swept them out of Round One in 2019. The Montreal Canadiens, who were the lowest-seeded team in the 24-team NHL postseason, snuffed out their 2019-2020 season in four games (3-1).
The offseason included the prerequisite changes, including a surprise trade. Not only did the Penguins submit the highest big for Toronto Maple Leafs winger Kasperi Kapanen, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford dealt heart-and-soul winger Patric Hornqvist to Florida for struggling defenseman Mike Matheson and fourth-line winger Colton Sceviour.
Gone is the bane of fans’ existence, Jack Johnson, replaced by bane-in-waiting Cody Ceci. Nick Bjugstad was traded to Minnesota.
So, without further buildup, here we go. The following predictions are for educational purposes only, and if you make money on them…you owe me.
7 Big and Bad Pittsburgh Penguins Predictions for 2021
7. Jarry Shines
There is a big difference between Tristan Jarry taking the pipes and Matt Murray’s ascension. Murray’s was rapid. He didn’t toil or struggle too long in the AHL and wasn’t over-exposed at the NHL level until after the Penguins “traded” Marc-Andre Fleury to Vegas in the Expansion Draft.
Jarry has had to fight his way back to the NHL. He played 26 games in 2017-18, but only two games in 2018-19. He was firmly ensconced as the backup last season until he forced the issue. Jarry started only the second of back-to-back games for the first six weeks of the season, but he was typically brilliant in those games (1-3-0).
His 45 save loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning should have earned him a few more starts. It didn’t.
The Canadian adage about keeping a player down allows him “to build up a little hate.” The Penguins did that with Jarry, though unintentionally.
Jarry had an edge to his game and was spectacular from November into January. However, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was predisposed to putting Matt Murray in the net, and Murray got the bulk of the starts from mid-January through early March.
In other words, Jarry has more to prove. That little chip on his shoulder should be even bigger now. Look for Jarry to be one of the Penguins’ best players.
Prediction: If the Penguins make the playoffs, Jarry will be a big reason. He’ll post a save percentage around .921 but succumb to the lackluster Penguins bottom lines and have a 2.50+ GAA.
6. Cody Ceci Will Do the Job
Ceci isn’t the fastest NHL defenseman, but he’ll be paired with Mike Matheson, who is perhaps the fastest NHL defenseman. Ceci isn’t the most offensively gifted defenseman, either. The GIF of him missing the net by at least six feet (social distancing the puck?) in the playoffs went viral.
But Ceci was once the defensive prowess on a pairing with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. He tried to be an offensive defenseman last season in Toronto, but he learned–that’s not him.
The Penguins signed Ceci to a near no-risk, one-year deal at a bargain $1.25 million. Ceci is an all-around defenseman who will be tasked with covering the defensive zone and letting Matheson freelance.
Prediction: If Penguins fans don’t pile on the anti-Ceci bandwagon and refuse to leave, they’ll be surprised. The Penguins got a defenseman who has had success and is still only 27-years-old. As Ottawa declined, Ceci was caught in the crosshairs. Last season, he tried to reinvent himself in Toronto before realizing where his bread was buttered.
The stats don’t matter. Ceci will become a solid member of the top-six defensemen.
5. The Training Tables will be Packed
The Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the most injured teams in the NHL last season. For most of the 2019-20 season, they led the league in significant man-games lost. The story was a continuation of the second-half of 2018-19, too.
The truncated 2020-21 NHL season will further tax the Penguins core players, who are now in their mid-30s (Crosby is 33, that’s mid?).
The compressed 56-game season to be played in less than four months will punish all players. The Penguins return to the speed game will leave them vulnerable to physical pounding, as it did in 2017.
Prediction: If the Penguins miss the playoffs, injuries will be a primary factor. Expect Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang to miss time, as Malkin and Letang have done in each of the last two seasons. Expect one of the three to miss significant time.
The younger Penguins supporting cast should keep the rest of the team healthier unless they return to their shot-blocking ways, but they will still be hobbled.
Depth will be the determining factor.
4. The Penguins will get off to a BAD start
The continuity throughout the Penguins lineup has been disrupted. Kasperi Kapanen may not arrive in time for the start of training camp due to travel restrictions. Mike Matheson will have to adjust to his fourth system in four years. Ceci will have to adjust, as will Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour, and any other newbie.
There just isn’t much time in training camp to form chemistry, bonds and become comfortable in the system. The new defenseman will especially struggle. From Sergei Gonchar to Paul Martin and the line of other veteran D-men who have arrived, playing with stars is different.
Very few defensemen arrive like Erik Gudbranson and fall in love with the new system at first sight.
The Penguins locker room will also undergo a significant change without Patric Hornqvist. That energy and leadership will be sorely missed. It also takes time for a room to come together.
There is a lot of jelling which needs to happen in a short time period.
Prediction: That adjustment period will hurt the Penguins. One could imagine a 3 A.M. fire drill, everyone has the best intentions, but initial confusion and disorganization will be obvious. It’s likely unavoidable.
It could even be fatal to their season.
The Penguins will need their core to lead the way for the first few weeks until everyone settles.
3: Sidney Crosby:
Crosby will rip up this season. The game’s greatest active player will not accept two straight failures without exerting himself to the point of near overexertion.
Give Crosby 20 goals and 50 assists for 70 points in 56-games.
2: Kasperi Kapanen
Kapanen should settle into a very Bryan Rust-like role. Get the puck, give it to the superstar, finish the play, and be hard to play against for 200 feet.
That’s Kapanen’s role. He should be able to fill it well, though his finnish is in question (not his Finnish).
We like Kapanen for 12-15 goals and 40 points.
1. Penguins Playoffs
It’s going to be an absolute battle to be one of the top four teams in the East Division. Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia seem to be locked for the top four, which leaves several good teams fighting for one spot.
The New York Islanders are animals within the division. Their disciplined and gritty style is made for the East. They made it to the Conference Final before losing to Tampa Bay in six games.
The New York Rangers are vastly improved. They went on a late run behind goalie Igor Shesterkin who was 10-2-0. New York was within a few points of the last wild-card spot when the season was halted. They’ve added top overall pick Alexis Lafreniere to a lineup that includes Artemi Panarin, 40-goal scoring center Mika Zbinejad, and Chris Kreider. Their young defenseman like Adam Fox and Anthony DeAngelo are a year older and wiser, too.
Even Buffalo is much improved. Eric Staal and Taylor Hall now dot their top six with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. There’s a lot to like about the Buffalo Sabres.
Prediction: Oh, boy. Nothing about the Pittsburgh Penguins predicament screams, “playoff team!”
I’d love to give you good news. Tell you it’s all going to be OK. The harsh reality is the Penguins will have to scrap and claw for a playoff spot. Every single game is a four-point game, and the Penguins bubbled around .500 in the division last season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins playoff hopes rely as much on other teams as they do the Penguins. Will the New York Islanders have Mathew Barzal in the lineup? If so, they’re a playoff team. If not, they’re not. Barzal is yet unsigned.
Can the New York Rangers take the next step in their development? If they do, and if Lafreniere is the real deal, the Rangers are also a playoff team.
If Buffalo addresses their substandard goaltending situation, they too will be formidable. In a normal year, they would contend for a wild card.
Rather than tell you the Penguins won’t make the playoffs, I’ll leave you with the complete picture and full context. It doesn’t look good. The Penguins will need to be their very best from the first 2020-21 puck drop.
It’s not impossible, but for the first time since 2006, the Penguins are not a playoff lock. They will have to brawl for the privilege.
There’s just too much against them in a short season. In a normal campaign, we’d put them in a wild card. But nothing about this year is normal.
We’ll put the odds at 70-30 that they miss the postseason. We can’t shake the probability that the Pittsburgh Penguins season ends on May 8. Sorry.