And so begins the journey of 1000 strides. For at least the next six months, the Pittsburgh Penguins journey will be arduous, perilous and unlikely to end with a parade but that doesn’t mean it will be without value or unsatisfying. The 2019-20 Penguins will need to scrap for points from the beginning to end and if they do not, the season could be lost. But if the Penguins live up to their potential as overachievers with a mean streak and relentless effort, the group could quickly become contenders.
Remember the word “overachievers”. That is the likeliest path of these Penguins, which have a remarkably talented core with something to prove and a deep roster of players who are fast and hungry. PHN believes the Penguins will become a gritty group of overachievers, somewhat like the New York Islanders but with an elite core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.
Since we were nearly perfect on our Penguins predictions again last season (Malkin and Kessel would be broken up by Thanksgiving, Crosby would score 100 points, Guentzel would get 40 goals. Though we also predicted much bigger things for the team and Derick Brassard. Oops).
The Pittsburgh Penguins will make the playoffs and challenge for the Metro Division before settling into second place because the regular season always seems to mean more to the Washington Capitals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will be a different breed than previous incarnations. Head coach Mike Sullivan said Wednesday, “I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team which is encouraging.”
The overachiever Penguins were built in Crosby and head coach Mike Sullivan’s image. The hard-nosed Penguins will be fun to watch if you enjoy several players accumulating more than 200 hits and playing a 200-foot game. That new attitude will include aggressive puck pressure from all four lines, actually defending their zone, and perhaps more respect for authority. Goal scoring could be the difficult part, which would certainly set the Penguins apart from their predecessors.
Teddy Blueger exemplifies the new Penguins team and overachiever model. In the preseason, he was fast, disruptive and exciting in a different way than Penguins fans have grown accustomed to being excited.
1A Prediction: The Washington Capitals will win the Metro Division because that’s what they do. They care more about the regular season and they’re the most talented team the division. However, a Round Two matchup with the Penguins looms.
1B Prediction: Goaltender Matt Murray is going to post elite numbers because of the Penguin’s attention to defense and ability in their own zone. Murray may think he’s in Heaven when his teammates clear rebounds, limit odd-man breaks, push shots to the perimeter and can get out of their own end.
Murray should post a save percentage around .925 and a GAA of 2.50. In the overachiever model, he could be in the Vezina conversation, just as Robin Lehner was for the New York Islanders.
The Penguins will score 250 goals, which has recently been the line between good teams and not so good teams (with a few exceptions). The top five goal scorers will be:
Sidney Crosby: 40
Jake Guentzel: 35
Evgeni Malkin: 30
Alex Galchenyuk: 25
Patric Hornqvist: 22
Yes, Hornqvist and Malkin will have up years. Malkin will turn the puck over, he’ll make some mistakes and take some penalties. You take a little bit of bad in exchange for the overwhelming good. Malkin is fragile, however. Should he struggle, or the season begins to go sideways, coaches will need to be in Malkin’s ear more so than most to avoid pressing or gripping the stick too tight. Malkin is too determined and too talented to have a bad year. Last season was a down year and yet he still scored 72 points.
Malkin looked like a world-beater in the preseason, except for the final game in which everyone looked bored with the process and ready for the real season to begin. His up year will lift Alex Galchenyuk and the Penguins will find a bargain with a longer-term deal at an affordable price.
Hornqvist will also return to the usual form. He may not score as much, pending his linemates and line assignments, but he looked just fine in preseason. If Hornqvist plays on the Penguins third line with Nick Bjugstad, they could be the Penguins shutdown line which would depress Hornqvist’s number but not his play. Also, depending on the Penguins power play looks, Hornqvist could be on the second unit, which would also lower his totals.
Sidney Crosby will carry the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team will take time to gel and in that process will be some ups…and some downs. Crosby will be the constant (provided he doesn’t do anything foolish like try to block meaningless shots). We predict Crosby will lead the Penguins is goals for that reason. Someone will need to score and provide offense while the Penguins figure it out in the beginning, and while they fight for a playoff spot in the end. Crosby will be that player.
Put Crosby down for 40 goals, 55-60 assists, and more Hart Trophy talk.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed for Round Two, maybe the Eastern Conference Final but that’s where the ride will end. For some, that may be disappointing. But the Penguins will open their window just a little more this season rather than seeing it slam shut. The Chicago Blackhawks were done and out of the playoffs by this point in their dynastic run. The Penguins have retooled on the fly and possess a remarkably fast, hungry and a team that will be “tough to play against.”
Instead of getting further from Sullivan’s vision or ideology, Rutherford has assembled a team designed for his head coach. There are several players who could have down years, including Alex Galchenyuk and Justin Schultz. Those players will be important secondary options and could make life more difficult if they are not successful. However, Rutherford also excels at in-season trades.
Since it is Western Pennsylvania, there will some potholes along the way and they could be craters. The smaller Penguins core means there is a greater chance that injury could dertail the team. Should Crosby miss significant time, or Kris Letang be out, the Penguins will have an extraordinary challenge ahead. Last season, they rallied around each other in March but that was one month and it didn’t last. Should the Penguins play without one of their big three for weeks, or months, the season will have an entirely different flavor; they would become survivors, not overachievers.
The Metro Division is much improved. New Jersey and the New York Rangers are especially improved. Making the playoffs will be a greater chore and a few bad bounces could jeopardize that for the Penguins. The overachiever model is not without danger.
The other pothole to watch is how Rutherford finally deals with the Penguins being pressed to the salary cap ceiling. Bryan Rust’s injury gave the team some temporary breathing room but afterward, the team will again be floating at the top of the allowable salaries. The short term injuries which every team deals with could be extra-pressing if the Penguins are unable to make call-ups.
Overall, it should be a fun season provided Penguins fans manage expectations and enjoy the small victories. For those who wait for the playoffs to show up or care, this isn’t the team they will remember. For those who go along for the ride beginning now, this team could be very satisfying.
The storylines of Matt Murray, his play and his contract will be one to watch. So too will the play and contract hopes of Alex Galchenyuk and Justin Schultz. We’ll follow the ups and downs of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and the Penguin’s defense which should be solid if not unspectacular.