Feel free to grab a shovel and bury 2020. It wasn’t a banner year for the Pittsburgh Penguins, either. After surviving an onslaught of significant injuries to core players, the Penguins slumped to third place in the Metro Division before the pandemic pause and missed out on a Qualifying Round bye.
You know what happened next as the Penguins landed with a thud in the Toronto bubble. Four games later, the 24th seeded (of 24 teams), Montreal Canadiens sent the Penguins home with not so much as a note from the principal.
This offseason, GM Jim Rutherford set about remaking the team in a younger and faster mold. He accomplished that, but whether the Penguins are better is a matter of debate.
Patric Hornqvist, his energy and heart are gone. So too are Justin Schultz, Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, and a pair of first-round picks. Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci, Mark Jankowski, and Evan Rodrigues take their place.
(Should Be) Pittsburgh Penguins New Year’s Resolutions
1. Stay Healthy
The Penguins could have rented a wing at UPMC with the number of surgeries, injuries, and impediments which befell them in 2020. Only one player is on record as testing positive for COVID (the name was never released), but Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Just Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Bjugstad, Zach Aston-Reese, and Jake Guentzel missed weeks or had surgery.
And that list is just off the top of my head. Did I miss anyone?
Subset: Let the goalie see the shot, avoid unnecessary shot-blocking, and try to hit them before they hit you.
2. Forecheck, Identity, Swagger
The Penguins blazed through the NHL from March 2016 onward to their Stanley Cup win. In the process, their forecheck was oppressive. Defensemen raced to pucks and made bad decisions. Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final remains a gold standard as the Penguins refused to allow the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the defensive zone.
Where has that forecheck gone?
The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t been significantly faster than the opponent since. The 2017 team was a counter puncher. And subsequent versions have struggled to find their identity and swagger.
Matheson may be the fastest defenseman in the NHL. He’s that quick. His biggest problem is making things worse. When things go sideways, one source close to Matheson told us, “Since (Boston College), it’s been in his DNA to compound issues by trying too hard (to change the game or atone for a mistake).”
Turnovers and more mistakes follow, but he is lightning fast.
Kapanen and Rodrigues are also fast. With Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust, the Penguins have an abundance of speed.
Rutherford delivered a younger and faster roster. Now, it’s up to head coach Mike Sullivan and the team to fulfill the vision.
3. Find the Hunger, Leadership
Call it the holy grail of successful, aging teams. While the Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of new faces who are barely old enough to rent a car, the core is still the same trio, which has three Stanley Cups.
No human can question Sidney Crosby’s desire and dedication, and the same goes for Malkin and Letang, but there has been a disconnect. Since 2017, when the Penguins have been pushed, they’ve folded.
Oddly, the team has been one of the most resilient regular season teams when one of the stars are injured. Without diving into the team psyche, the numbers show the team is good at overcoming adversity, but not when they’re healthy.
Players privately groused about the Penguins trade, which sent Hornqvist to Florida. They did so not because Hornqvist was a 40-goal scorer, but because he was the figurative beating heart inside the locker room.
Not only will the Penguins have to find that drive to overcome an unprecedented season in which they will be confined to hotels on the road and are encouraged to sequester at home, but they will have to find a new locker room leadership structure.
Those are no small tasks, but you never know who will step forward and what the new results will be.