The Penguins will remain in “championship mode,” pursuing Cups with their veteran group while supplementing their stars via diamond-in-the-rough call-ups from the AHL.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the alpha dogs of the NHL, fresh off two straight Stanley Cups and positioned to challenge for the first three-peat since the New York Islanders did it in the early 1980s.
Teams with sustained periods of dominance, of course, often become victims of their own success. Look at what’s happened to the L.A. Kings in recent seasons. Years of challenging for and sometimes winning Cups meant GM Dean Lombardi mortgaged first-round picks in pursuit of veteran help or that the Kings picked at the end of the first round after winning Cups. Jim Rutherford’s Penguins are in a similar spot these days. They’ve picked in the first round once in their past five drafts, and they dealt that lone first-rounder, Kasperi Kapanen, to Toronto as part of the package for Phil Kessel.
None of this is to say the Penguins are doing anything wrong. They’re behaving exactly as a powerhouse team should. But don’t be alarmed if their 2019-20 depth chart looks a wee bit shallow. The Penguins don’t have anything close to an elite 10-bell prospect, with Daniel Sprong the closest thing, so it’s tough to forecast exciting new changes to their core, which will be anchored by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, plus Kessel, blueliner Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray. The Pens should maintain their top-heavy roster look. That said, they’ve done a phenomenal job developing underrated players from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton under the stewardship of Jason Botterill, who parlayed his success into the Buffalo Sabres GM job. The likes of Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust didn’t top anyone’s prospect rankings on their way up, but now every team wishes it had those guys. The Pens should be fine thanks to their consistently great development. The next Guentzel could wind up being Zach Aston-Reese, who led all of NCAA Div. I in scoring last year and turned heads at Penguins development camp.
Ultimately, the team will still run through Crosby and Malkin by 2019-20. They’ll be finished their primes by then but, as two of the all-time greats, their “decline” should still be darned good. The Pens will continue their formula of repeatedly replacing their star centers’ wingers. We might see the rugged Patric Hornqvist, whose tenacious style ages his body quicker than most, allowed to walk when his contract expires next summer. Same goes for tough guy Ryan Reaves, for whom Rutherford mortgaged a first-round pick. The guess here is that experiment ends after one year. In previous seasons, especially under previous GM Ray Shero, the Pens often swapped in wingers via trade, but they’ve done it more often from within of late. The youngsters come up from the AHL understanding coach Mike Sullivan’s north-south attacking formula.
The Pens are relatively set from the net out. Murray already has two Stanley Cups in two seasons and, with Marc-Andre Fleury off to Vegas, the crease belongs to Murray for the long term. If he stays healthy, he’ll hold this gig for a decade.
The Pens have the heart of their D-corps, Letang, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin, inked to long-term deals, albeit we never know how many years Letang has left. He could be one more major injury away from having to retire, for all we know. When he’s in the lineup, he’s still one of the sport’s elite all-around defensemen. The back end of Pittsburgh’s blueline should keep cycling in players who know Sullivan’s simple game plan and get the puck up to the speedy forwards with crisp, long, quick passes.
GOT IT: The Pens still have as much top-end talent as any team in the league, and that won’t change by 2019-20. Crosby and Malkin remain among the best at their position, and Murray is a star in the making. Pittsburgh should also remain as fast as any team in the sport, especially if prospect Sprong makes the impact many hope he will. He remains raw, but there’s no denying his pure scoring ability.
NEED IT: Nick Bonino’s departure left a gaping hole at Pittsburgh’s third-line center position, forcing us to project Dominik Simon into that role. The better bet is that Rutherford goes out and gets a veteran No. 3 pivot, maybe even before 2017-18 begins.
CAP WATCH: Pittsburgh spends around the cap most years and that shouldn’t change. The only significant deals to watch are the one RFA Rust signs for next season and the one Guentzel will be owed after 2018-19. That’s another reason to predict a Hornqvist departure. Murray’s contract expires after 2019-20, and he should score a major long-term contract then.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s no stretch to call the two-time-defending champs a model franchise. Of course the Penguins are. They have their studs signed long-term, and they know how to get the most out of their development system despite rarely having access to elite talents at the draft podium. Someday, this era will end when Crosby and Malkin age out, plunging Pittsburgh into mediocrity or worse, but that’s still many years away.
Previously: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers
Up next: St. Louis Blues