It’s no surprise that being swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs left the faithful crying for change and shaped the Pittsburgh Penguins’ off-season. GM Jim Rutherford initially raised eyebrows by hinting that anyone except Sidney Crosby could be moved. The emotion ebbed some, but Rutherford still shook things up by shipping the productive but one-dimensional Phil Kessel to Arizona in exchange for left winger Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
The Penguins also traded defenseman Olli Maatta to Chicago for center Dominik Kahun and signed free-agent left winger Brandon Tanev, moves that helped address a glut of defenders, salary-cap concerns and a need for more options up front that could improve scoring balance and address the retirement of Matt Cullen.
Pittsburgh also had a first-round pick in the draft for the first time since 2014, taking right winger Samuel Poulin, but he’s at least a year away.
Crosby, 32, is certainly aging well, reaching 35 goals and 100 points and playing a dominant two-way style that saw him earn votes for the Hart and Selke Trophies. Linemate Jake Guentzel established himself as a cornerstone with a 40-goal season.
Then there’s Malkin, whose 21 goals were half his total from the previous season as he became a turnover machine and generally seemed out of sorts. The Penguins are counting on him to rebound at age 33, but it’s anyone’s guess how the trade of pal and frequent linemate Kessel might figure in. Another concern is 32-year-old right winger Patric Hornqvist, who uncharacteristically dipped below the 20-goal mark and has a concussion history.
Still, there will be a lot of options for line configurations and production from the likes of Jared McCann, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Aston-Reese, Kahun and Tanev. Pittsburgh is also relying on continued output from defenseman Kris Letang, who tied a career high with 16 goals.
The blueline will again revolve around the play of Letang. His partner, Brian Dumoulin, has grown into a strong and steady defenseman, and the Penguins have high regard for second-year NHLer Marcus Pettersson.
Pending UFA Justin Schultz is a steady two-way guy and Erik Gudbranson provides physical play, but either could be trade bait. Jack Johnson would’ve been part of an off-season deal with Minnesota, but Kessel nixed it based on his contract rights. There should be some good competition for the depth ‘D’ slots, with Juuso Riikola on the verge of being ready for full-time duty.
Two questions surround two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray, who’s scheduled to be a restricted free agent next summer. Will he get an extension, and will he stay healthy? Casey DeSmith, 27, is locked in as backup for three years. His numbers were similar to Murray’s last season.
The Penguins have to replace Kessel’s 36 power-play points, but with the firepower they have in Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Guentzel – who should finally get a permanent spot on the top unit – they have the means to be dominant with the man advantage after finishing fifth last season. The penalty kill ran hot and cold, finishing tied for 19th, and loses a staple in Cullen.
Rutherford, as embarrassed and dismayed by the first-round sweep as anyone, made moves to make the Penguins faster and younger – and perhaps hungrier – to dovetail with the aging core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang and make the team a Cup contender again.
No players who are technically rookies are likely to see much action, but Riikola, who played his first 37 NHL games before finishing in the AHL, has been deemed by Rutherford to be ready for steady NHL work. So has Teddy Blueger, who can play wing or center and had six goals and 10 points in his first 28 NHL games last season.
The Kessel trade needs to serve as some sort of spark for the team, and that goes double for Malkin. The Penguins no longer have to tolerate Kessel’s warts, but they’ll also have to replace his goals and point-per-game production.
Rutherford took a moment to express a deep appreciation upon his selection this year to the Hall of Fame before noting he still had a lot of work to do. Shortly after that, he gave Mike Sullivan a vote of confidence, signing him to a four-year contract extension. That ended Sullivan’s status as a lame-duck coach for 2019-20 and snuffed out growing speculation he might be on the hot seat.
– Shelly Anderson
Stanley Cup Odds: 40/1
Prediction: 5th in Metro
For a pipeline in dire need of talent, 2019 first-rounder Samuel Poulin comes to Pittsburgh with NHL pedigree and a power-forward profile. He was the straw that stirred the drink in Sherbrooke: an assistant captain at 17 with a heavy shot and high battle level. Fellow 2019ers Nathan Legare and Judd Caulfield are also tough to play against, while 2016 pick Kasper Bjorkqvist is turning pro after a gritty NCAA career with Providence. High-end skill and goalies are in short supply.
1. Samuel Poulin, LW
Age 18 Team Sherbrooke (QMJHL)
A complete player with strong two-way traits. If offense comes along, he’ll rise on depth chart.
Acquired 21st overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
2. Pierre-Olivier Joseph, D
Age 20 Team Drummondville (QMJHL)
Excels when in possession of puck. Makes quick decisions and plays well in transition.
Acquired From Ari, June, 2019 NHL ’20-21
3. Kasper Bjorkqvist, RW
Age 22 Team Providence (HE)
More a finisher than a playmaker during three college seasons. A hard worker defensively.
Acquired 61st overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
4. Calen Addison, D
Age 19 Team Lethbridge (WHL)
Undersized blueliner strong on the rush with excellent hockey sense. Mobile and agile.
Acquired 53rd overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
5. Emil Larmi, G
Age 23 Team HPK (Fin.)
Below-average size but helped lead HPK to the league title in 2018-19. Faces good test in AHL.
Acquired Free agent, June, 2019 NHL ’22-23
6. Nikita Pavlychev, C
Age 22 Team Penn State (Big Ten)
Uses his colossal size to shield the puck. Great skater in relation to his height. Now a senior.
Acquired 197th overall, 2015 NHL ’21-22
7. John Marino, D
Age 22 Team Harvard (ECAC)
Right-shot defender playing his fourth season in Ivy League. Has third-pair upside.
Acquired From Edm, July, 2019 NHL ’21-22
8. Anthony Angello, RW
Age 23 Team Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Good size with power-forward traits. Needs scoring and intensity to be considered ready.
Acquired 145th overall, 2014 NHL ’20-21
9. Filip Hallander, C
Age 19 Team Timra (Swe.)
Competitive two-way forward who works hard on forecheck and backcheck. Bottom-six outlook.
Acquired 58th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
10. Jordy Bellerive, C
Age 20 Team Lethbridge (WHL)
After going undrafted in 2017, the small pivot finished among WHL leaders past two seasons.
Acquired Free agent, Sept, 2017 NHL ’22-23