The Pittsburgh Penguins are both the envy and the target of the hockey world. In many areas, the Penguins have an embarrassment of riches but the Eastern Conference has as many as 12 playoff contenders. And, the Penguins have a couple weaknesses. While the “real” season doesn’t begin until April, the Penguins 3-Peat could hinge on the first half of the NHL season.
The Penguins have two straight Stanley Cups, a proven winner starting goaltender, Matt Murray, who clearly spent the offseason improving his glove hand, potentially the best top-six forward crew in the league, and Kris Letang will return to their lineup. The Penguins are again favorites in the Eastern Conference. More than 100 points this season seems a foregone conclusion.
After two grueling seasons, the Penguins have played more hockey than any team in history.
However, the devil is in the details. How will the Penguins surpass 100 points?
1st Half Journey
If the Penguins must spend large amounts of energy to make the playoffs, they will be at a distinct disadvantage in the playoffs. The NHL season has several milestones, which players use to meter their intensity.
From the banner raising to Halloween, players get to play an open, offensive game. Between Halloween and U.S. Thanksgiving, players gradually tighten the game. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, players and teams begin to address issues and some games become significant. After Christmas…it’s “GO” time.
A strong first half will be important for the Penguins, but only if they do it the “right way.” The Penguins will need contributions from their third and fourth lines, and whoever may comprise those lines. The Penguins absolutely cannot afford to ride Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin before Christmas. That would be the equivalent of a jockey going to the whip on the front stretch of the Kentucky Derby.
Currently, this means third and fourth lines centers Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney will need to contribute more than they ever have, previously. Last season, McKegg tallied just one assist in 15 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, which as desperate for a center. The Penguins will need offensive contributions and good penalty killing from those centers. Should either or both falter, the Penguin will be forced to play from behind, literally and figuratively.
The Penguins top line, Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary could be great. Malkin-Kessel also appear ready to assert themselves, which will make the Penguins an offensive force. 100 goals and 200 points should be possible, though a legitimate third line would complete the roster.
The Penguins will need offensive contributions and good penalty killing from those bottom two centers. Should either or both falter, the Penguin will be forced to play from behind, literally and figuratively. That takes energy.
With a good first half, the Penguins will not have pressure to make the playoffs, they won’t spend the extra energy to compete in otherwise meaningless games, and they will be able to rest players as needed.
It could take some time to replace the leadership lost. Who will become the “glue” in place of Fleury, who will be the respected player who holds others accountable, like Cullen, and who will Sid lean on, as he did Kunitz?
Those are big losses and not easily replaced. Nor can players be assigned those roles.
The Penguins have more NHL caliber wingers than any team in the NHL. However, they are perilously thin at center. And…goaltending?
Marc-Andre Fleury not only filled his responsibility as a “backup” goalie, he was brilliant when Murray was injured in the first half, last season. The numbers didn’t bear that out, but that is because the Penguins were not playing great hockey. Fleury faced a high percentage of High-Danger scoring chances.
The Penguins will turn to backup goalie Antti Niemi, this season. Niemi, 34, has declined in each of the past three seasons. He settled at an embarrassing .892 save percentage last season, in Dallas.
The Penguins believe a better situation will help Niemi rebound (no pun intended), but that isn’t a sure bet.
Matt Hunwick, 32, isn’t Trevor Daley. Hunwick will play a more steady, less electric game than Daley. The eye test says the Hunwick signing is a downgrade, but the advanced stats will likely show the opposite.
Oh by the way, Reaves is a good hockey player. His speed allows him to aggressively join the forecheck, and his size adds imposing puck pressure. He will be a nice fit. Nay, a great fit.
Cautionary Tale: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning outplayed the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and took the Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2016. They too played a lot of hockey and experienced a lot of success.
And they assumed they would get a third chance at the Stanley Cup, last season. Lightning players admitted they thought their talent alone would get them into the playoffs. They assumed wrong.
Second, injuries decimated the club. Offensive leader and All-Star, Steven Stamkos missed most of the season after he suffered a knee injury in the 18th game last season. Ryan Callahan failed to play 20 games. Tyler Johnson also missed 16 games due to injury. Johnson told USA Today, “Injuries come when your body gets fatigued, that’s pretty much what happens.”
Despite all of the tribulations, the Lightning amassed 94 points but missed the playoffs by a single point. Realize, one game in October or November could have changed their fate. One goal from a secondary player could have put them in the playoffs.
Lessons: The Penguins should not assume they will make the playoffs and the spate of injuries will likely continue.
Yes, there are as many as 13 teams which will be competitive this season. 12 for sure. All eight Eastern Conference playoff teams (Pittsburgh, Washington, Columbus, New York Rangers, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Boston) are again playoff worthy.
The Lightning and the New York Islanders missed the playoffs by one point. The Islanders shed some dead weight by dumping Mikhail Grabovsky on the Vegas Knights and added talented Oiler Jordan Eberle. The Isles will also run with talented rookie Mathew Barzal and #66 wearing Josh Ho-Sang.
The Carolina Hurricanes are young and talented. They made a charge at the end of last season, which should carry into this season. And, they finally added goaltending in the offseason, by acquiring Chicago Blackhawks backup, Scott Darling.
The Philadelphia Flyers appear ready to collect dividends from their player development, as well. Youngster Oskar Lindblom, who lit up the Swedish Hockey League as a 19-year-old, should play a top-six role very soon (Lindblom was sent to the AHL because the Flyers needed an extra defenseman due to Shayne Gostisbehere‘s injury).
The Eastern Conference will be heavy this season. Even New Jersey is improved. The entire Metro division should post more than 80 points.
Least Bold Predictions Ever:
Sidney Crosby will win the Hart Trophy, as he, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary will statistically torch the league. Great players have great egos about being great. Crosby will assert himself, again.
Matt Murray will play 60 games with a .920 save percentage and 2.30 GAA.
Believe it or not, the Penguins may need to work to make the playoffs, especially if they delay the trade for a third line center.
Metro Winner: Columbus Blue Jackets
Atlantic Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the Metro playoffs, the Blue Jackets will give the Penguins everything they have. And then a little more. It’s hard to imagine the Penguins having enough gas to overcome another Columbus-Washington gauntlet. The Penguins were out of gas this season but summoned enough courage to advance as Washington choked away their chance.
My head is betting Columbus (especially if they snag Matt Duchene), but the adage is–you have to knockout the champion. And the Penguins–if they properly address the third line center role–will be an impossible out.
For hockey’s sake, a Toronto-Pittsburgh Eastern Conference Final would electrify the fans. Toronto has speed, physicality, and gobs of talent. There is a lot to like.
The odds are stacked against the Penguins. A 3-Peat should be an impossible task. As much will depend on GM Jim Rutherford addressing needs throughout the season, as it will the players on the ice. But, the Penguins have an extra gear and drive, which other teams do not have.
The Penguins will win a third Cup…but beware the Columbus Blue Jackets, especially with Matt Duchene.