The season begins before a national ESPN audience on Tuesday night. The Pittsburgh Penguins will see their goal laid before them as the Tampa Bay Lightning raise their second consecutive Stanley Cup banner. The Penguins have been there, done that, want to get back, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely the Penguins are a contender and could well struggle to make the playoffs.
It could also be the swan song for the decorated Penguins core whose members will one day be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But we’ll worry about that another day.
The Penguins aren’t as good or as deep as they were a year ago. Center Evgeni Malkin’s absence which will extend for two months or more, is a significant issue. The lesser blue line and bottom six are problems.
Defenseman Cody Ceci left via free agency and was replaced by…Chad Ruhwedel? Another step back.
Without Malkin, the other regressions will make the Penguins’ task even more arduous. Should Sidney Crosby miss additional time, the Penguins season–possibly the last ride with the longstanding core of Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang–could be a lost campaign.
The 2021-22 PHN Pittsburgh Penguins Predictions.
Penguins Record: 45-32-5. 95 points. Playoffs?
The Penguins do not figure to win the division as they did the East Division last season, at least not with the current roster iteration.
A 95-point season would have missed the playoffs in 2018-19, the last time the NHL played an 82-game schedule. The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are better than last season, and the Carolina Hurricanes are back in the division. With the combination of better teams competing for the wild card, and the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, and Washington Capitals at the top of the division, the Penguins will be squeezed.
The Penguins fortunes depend as much on the other teams as it does them. We’ll call it 60/40 the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff streak ends.
Sidney Crosby: 75 Points
If the Penguins are in trouble, one can be sure that captain Sidney Crosby will be on high alert. We like Crosby for 25 goals and 75 points with linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
The Penguins will be in need, and Crosby will produce.
Jake Guentzel/Bryan Rust 25 goals
The Penguins top line will be a juggernaut. If the team scores 250 goals, which is often the minimum required for playoff participation, this line will produce the bulk of the Penguins offense. Maybe 40%?
Anyone who watched the Penguins over the past season-plus when Rust joined Guentzel and Crosby knows the Penguins top line is that good. They’ll need to be that good and better.
Middle Six Trouble. Jeff Carter: 15 goals and 45 points.
While the top line will be dynamic, the Penguins middle six will struggle to keep their end of the bargain. Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger will be the middle six centers for the first half of the season.
We appreciate the cult status Jeff Carter has attained, but his likely to recede from last season’s torrid pace, especially in the second half of the season.
The hopes for the middle six are the wingers Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen.
Jason Zucker: 17 goals, 48 points.
Zucker has not yet shown he’s worth the hefty price tag that the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the Minnesota Wild for his services (Calen Addison, 1st round pick, and Alex Galchenyuk, though Galchenyuk was a salary dump portion of the deal).
Zucker scored 18 points in 38 games last season. He termed his performance “awful.”
He looked zippy in the preseason, but getting into the dirty areas will determine his success.
Kasperi Kapanen: Shining star
Kapanen has a chance to break out as a league-wide star. Head coach Mike Sullivan has challenged him to add more layers and facets to his game, including the penalty kill and as the point on the power play and to play harder in the offensive zone.
At least in the preseason, Kapanen hit his marks and looked like the type of player Sullivan thinks he can be: elite.
Prediction: Kapanen springs for 20 goals and 55 points.
Evgeni Malkin: Tough Times Ahead
PHN predicts Evgeni Malkin will return with a vengeance. When he comes back from his offseason knee surgery, which appears to be on the six-month trajectory (including these nasty scars), we think he’ll be a galloping force who tries to make up for lost time.
However, a surgically repaired knee, lack of conditioning, and Malkin’s otherwise fragile health present as much danger as an opportunity. If we were betting, we’d bet that Malkin struggles with ups and downs, as well as additional time lost due to injury.
How Malkin handles the frustration and if he’s ready for the playoffs (if there are playoffs) will be the crux of the Penguins season. And future?
Prediction: 10 goals, 20 assists in 35 games played.
Tristan Jarry .915 save percentage.
His W-L record will be dependent on the team, but for those worried about Jarry–answer this question: Were you worried before Round One?
The answer should be no. A bad playoff series doesn’t define a goalie unless it continues. Ask Marc-Andre Fleury, Patrick Roy, and even Ron Hextall, who struggled in the playoffs after a great first run.
Kris Letang and the Defense:
Kris Letang has a rock star year. Mark him down for 60 points and praise, even as contract talks and rumors swirl. The Penguins will need him, and he will deliver. Mark it down.
Defenseman Matheson scores 10 goals 35 points. His confidence will occasionally get the best of him, and he needs a refocus moment, but his season will be solid.
Marcus Pettersson’s slide continues as opponents pick on him. Pettersson will have a tough year. No point total predictions are needed, but Pettersson’s job will be tenuous.
Kris Letang has a rock star year. Mark him down for 60 points and praise, even as contract talks and rumors swirl.
John Marino will settle into a comfortable spot. He won’t be the star some thought possible, but he won’t be a weak link, either. Marino is a comfortable defenseman capable of 25 points and no-worries play.
Chad Ruhwedel: We don’t think he finishes the year as the Penguins’ third RHD but will be solid in his time.
The New Guys
Danton Heinen: 12 goals and 34 points.
Heinen had a splendid rookie year with the Boston Bruins in 2017-18. He scored 47 points (16-31-47) and 34 points in his second year. However, he’s slumped to 26, and 14 points in the last two COVID shortened seasons.
Heinen had a good training camp, and Sullivan specifically noted he was one of three players to stand out. Proof is needed. We’re skeptical until we see him excel, again, during actual game action. We think he’ll be OK.
Brock McGinn: 10 goals, 25 points
It looks like there will be an adjustment period for McGinn. PHN wasn’t overly enamored with his preseason work, and he was never a big producer in Carolina.
His career-high is 30 points, and that seems about right.
Brian Boyle: 10 Points
We’re not sure how long Boyle will stick around. It’s still not official that Boyle gets a contract. Assuming he does, Boyle won’t be a point producer but a rugged fourth-line center and PK pillar.
Sometimes 10 points are good enough. It will be in this case as Boyle is like found money.
Drew O’Connor: We’re not sure how much Pittsburgh Penguins or WBS Penguins ice he’ll get, but we like him enough to think he’ll make someone expendable. Put him down for five goals, at worst, and 10 goals at best.
Zach Aston-Reese is a defensive shutdown winger. This season, he pops 15 goals and 30 points by playing harder around the net. Next summer, he gets paid.
We Just Don’t Know
Where do Evan Rodrigues and Dominik Simon fit? We just don’t know yet. They’re valuable, capable forwards whom Sullivan likes. Simon figures to play ahead of O’Connor, but will Rodrigues play ahead of the others at wing?
It’s a challenging puzzle to put together. The pieces don’t exactly fit, but they must go together anyway.