And so it begins. The Pittsburgh Penguins quest to win their fourth Stanley Cup since 2009, third in four years and achieve dynastic status begins Thursday against their most immediate obstacle, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. The 2018-19 Penguins are the best team in the Eastern Conference and the most battle-tested in the NHL, but they will be the best team for only one more year.
Derick Brassard, the most talented third-line center in the NHL, and 30-point fourth-liner Matt Cullen who provide the Penguins with nearly unparalled depth are signed for this season, only. For this Penguins team, it is Stanley Cup or bust.
Write it down. Speed, extraordinary skill, newfound depth, and physicality will make the Penguins the 2019 Stanley Cup champions. They will win the Metro Division with 106 points and score 290 goals.
After a season filled with excuses and malaise, the Penguins organization moved swiftly and effectively this offseason. The Penguins added the locker-room leader Cullen and retained Riley Sheahan while creating a third line which includes speedy, gritty wingers Bryan Rust and Dominik Simon beside Brassard. The Penguins were perilously thin a season ago. Now, they boast one of the most skilled and dangerous bottom-six forward crews in the league.
Brassard and Cullen especially appear to have recaptured their difference-maker form. Cullen looked even faster in training camp than he did in his previous stint with the Penguins and his enthusiasm to return to his hockey home has been evident. Brassard has been dynamic. His creativity and skating ability were evident in the preseason. He looked like the 60-point pivot he was with the New York Rangers in 2015 before being swallowed whole by the Ottawa darkness and an unspecified injury last season.
However, the Penguins will have Brassard for only this season as he will be a highly sought free agent worth big money next summer. And Cullen has heavily considered retirement after each of the past three seasons. Presuming the Penguins can find enough ice time for Brassard, he told coaches after last season he had trouble adjusting to the reduced role, he should produce offense on par with most second lines across the NHL.
With a little help from his friends Rust and Simon, Brassard is more than capable of 50 points. And beneath the waves of the Penguins top-nine attack, Cullen could post 12 goals and 30 points, again.
Both are stark improvements from the Penguins stale lineup last season which scored at historically low levels at 5v5 until the coaches waved the white flag on a four-line approach and began double shifting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in place of third and fourth line centers Riley Sheahan and Carter Rowney.
The Penguins should also experience an uptick on top-line offense, too. Jake Guentzel had a bad case of the sophomore slump. Last season, he rallied to score 48 points (22g, 26a) with nearly half of those points (22) coming in February and March. He and Crosby torched the playoffs with 20 and 21 points. There is reason to believe Guentzel can maintain his elevated play, especially beside Crosby.
Guentzel should be able to clear 60 points with ease.
Hornqvist on the top line, second line with Malkin or even on the third line with Brassard is an automatic 20 goals. He’s not failed to reach that plateau in four seasons with the Penguins, and only injury can derail him this season.
Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, however, are the only question mark. Like best friends sitting in the back of science class who get carried away, the question remains if the pair can successfully play together. Will they maximize their talents or will the temptation to make one more pass or to forget defense be too great? Malkin admitted head coach Mike Sullivan, “wasn’t happy” with them, last season.
Look for the coaches to first offer a warning then quickly break them up if they don’t produce. The only prediction for that line is they will get the warning before U.S. Thanksgiving. Fortunately for the Penguins, their forward depth affords them several options beside Malkin and Crosby. So, if one of them is forced to sit in the front row, the Penguins will quickly adjust.
The Blue Line
Kris Letang, 31, is healthy and eager to outrun the dark clouds which followed him last season. Last season, Letang never got on a roll. He zigged when he should have zagged, and the lamps lit against him more than for him. He was frustrated. The coaches exercised patience even as they grimaced, too.
Don’t look for Letang to recapture his dynamic Norris Trophy-caliber form of 2016. Part of the adjustment last season was learning to keep himself away from harm. He still dished 109 hits last season which is a testament to his ability to cover all 200 feet of the ice surface, but the number also reflects the high amount of turnovers and being his own zone.
The most significant number for Letang will not be 5v5 points or even power play assists. The biggest indicator of his success will be the plus/minus statistic. 5v5 play is more indicative of the overall game than point totals. Since the Penguins will have a significant puck possession advantage, and Letang is one of the dominant players, there isn’t a good reason to be on the ice for more goals against than scored.
Letang will have some fun early in the season as he spreads his wings again. He will be a fantasy hockey star. He will score 60 points and show enough improved defensive play to allow all but the most hardened doubters happy. However, if Letang again fights the puck and the game, all bets are off as to what happens next.
Justin Schultz has become a complete defenseman capable of handling his own zone, leading the rush and getting a heavy shot from the point on net. His decline from 51 points in 2016-17 to 27 points last season may have frustrated him, but part of that equation includes less shelter from defensive situations. He and 6-foot-7 blue line thumper Jamie Oleksiak are paired to start the season. The pair showed good chemistry last season which should allow Schultz to take a few more chances.
Schultz is a solid candidate for 35 points, maybe 40. His 51 point season included an incredible hot streak in November and December. It was probably an outlier.
Jack Johnson, 31, inked a five-year deal at a discounted rate ($3.25 million AAV). He had only 11 points (3g, 8a) in a disappointing effort with Columbus last season. Piecing together hints from Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella and news reports of Johnson’s family caused financial troubles, it seems the issues got the better of Johnson. PHN will attest from first-hand interactions, Johnson is immensely enjoying a fresh start and the ability to play with old friend Sidney Crosby.
He probably won’t score 30 points but he will eat big minutes which will allow Letang to play less but more meaningful minutes. Call both of those situations a win. Johnson’s season Corsi rating and hit total will be the barometers by which his season is measured. If he can produce positive possession or close to it, and contribute jam from the blueline, the Penguins coaches will be smiling like a butcher’s dog.
Murray, Murray, Murray
Most assume Penguins goalie Matt Murray will rebound and get back to a .920 save percentage. The Penguins vastly improved defense will aid in that pursuit. However, Murray would not be the first goalie to have a great start to his career but fade as shooters adjusted. It is not a given that Murray will again be a big-time goalie.
And the Penguins don’t have a ready backup plan. Tristan Jarry needs more polish before he is prepared for a starter’s net on a regular basis. If there is one phase of the game which could undo the Penguins potential dominance, it is goaltending.
It is Murray or bust for the Penguins.
The truth probably lies somewhere between his bedrock .907 save percentage last season and his .923 mark in 2017. Above .918 and Murray is a winner. Under that mark, and the Penguins may be eyeing a seasoned backup with playoff experience in February.
We Want the Cup
Like the Tampa Bay Lightning a season ago who returned from a disappointing season to dominate the NHL, the look for the Penguins eagerness to return to June hockey to be present in October. Unlike last season, the Penguins do not appear to be sleepwalking into the season like a college student after an all-nighter.
Because the Penguins will lose Brassard and (maybe, probably, possibly, potentially) Cullen, this is their moment. They will not have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup again. Rested and ready. Angry and aggressive. The Penguins are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
For the record, with great reservations of overestimation, PHN predicted the Penguins would get bounced in the Eastern Conference Final after squeaking past the Capitals. Oops. But we weren’t far off.
And barring injury, we won’t be far off this season. It’s the Penguins Cup to win or lose, though maybe an old Flower will weed them out. PHN will look at the Penguins opponents and more individual predictions next.