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Season Preview 2019-20: Pittsburgh Penguins

Is this the season the playoff streak comes to an end? The Penguins have made changes, but they may not have been for the better.

Is this team better or worse without Phil Kessel?
General manager Jim Rutherford finally got his Kessel trade done, shipping the veteran sniper off to Arizona, with Alex Galchenyuk as the main piece coming back the other way. If you go by the old adage of “who got the best player?” Pittsburgh lost this deal. But there were loud concerns about how Kessel was impacting the team, with some pundits claiming the right winger’s lax approach to defense was even rubbing off on linemate Evgeni Malkin. Still, Kessel put up 82 points last year, and Galchenyuk’s career high is only 56. The Pens have been losing talent for years, and that can’t go on much longer, especially with the barest prospect cupboard in the league.

Which Matt Murray is showing up?
For Penguins fans and those who just enjoy strong play, let’s hope it’s the kid that helped Pittsburgh win two straight Stanley Cups a few years ago. If you’re a cynic or a Flyers fan, you might be pulling for the more recent iteration of Murray, the one who has struggled through multiple injuries and inconsistency. The positive spin is that Murray still finished last season with a .919 save percentage. Unfortunately, the season also ended with a sweep at the hands of the Islanders, Pittsburgh’s strange playoff bogeymen. Murray’s lanky frame is a blessing and a curse, but the Penguins need him to be healthy if they have any chance of making one more run in the Malkin/Sidney Crosby era.

Did the Penguins keep the wrong defenseman?
While Olli Maatta had his struggles in Pittsburgh, it was a little eyebrow-raising to see Rutherford deal him to Chicago and keep veterans Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. That pairing brings a lot of size, physicality and snarl to the blueline, but in terms of positive game results, they tend to be dreadful (advanced stats have even shown Johnson as a cause of Kessel’s poor defensive showing in Pittsburgh). Trend spotting is tough in the NHL, where the burly Blues just won the Cup over a similar Bruins squad, but if the Penguins can’t get the puck out of their own end, it’s really tough to score. That puts a big onus on other defensemen such as Kris Letang.

Stanley Cup Odds: 40/1

Rookie Watch
It’s still tough to crack the Penguins if you’re young, so don’t expect any Calder candidates here. Gritty, two-way winger Kasper Bjorkqvist is an interesting player: a Finn who played NCAA hockey with Providence and had a nice college career. Perhaps he can usurp a bottom-sixer in camp.

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