Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season: Sidney Crosby finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting and did a lot of the heavy lifting with Evgeni Malkin missing half the season due to injury (again), leading the team in scoring with 62 points and accounting for over 40 percent of the team’s total faceoff wins. Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang managed to stay healthy all season and Bryan Rust’s second consecutive 20-goal season in a shortened season covered up some questionable defensive depth and unreliable goaltending from Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. Kasperi Kapanen’s start was a little delayed, but both he and Jeff Carter welcome additions. It was a fairly successful season considering the tumultuous and sudden resignation of GM Jim Rutherford a couple weeks into the season.
The playoffs were a completely different story. They entered as the top seed, winning their first division banner since 2014 and extended their playoff streak to 15 seasons in a tight race, but they were matched up against the rival Islanders and made another early exit for the third straight season. Despite winning the season series 6-2, the Isles have been the Pens’ kryptonite in the playoffs, defeating them in eight of their last 10 games dating back to 2019. Jarry allowed 21 goals on a .888 Sv% and the team entered offseason with a lot uncertainty with a relatively new front office with Ron Hextall as the new GM and Brian Burke as the president of hockey operations, who vowed that the Pens would play “ugly hockey.”
Best option: Jake Guentzel, LW
At the very least, Guentzel will be healthy. THN’s Pool Guide had Crosby pegged to score 92 points, but his status for the season opener is questionable due to wrist surgery. Malkin is projected to score 50, but his diagnosis was known before the season and his point totals were adjusted accordingly.
That leaves Guentzel at the top with 73 projected points, a total that he could possibly surpass if he can maintain his current point-per-game pace over the past three seasons. He ranks 18th in the league with 83 goals scored during that span, but on a goals-per-game basis, Guentzel ranks 12th with 0.47 goals per game, tied with Kyle Connor and just below Mikko Rantanen. He’s not being mentioned in the same breath, but Guentzel should be one of the most reliable goal scorers this fantasy season (assuming he stays healthy).
Many fantasy managers are pretty bullish on him; Guentzel is getting drafted early in the third rounds of most 12-team drafts based on Yahoo’s ADP (30.4), suggesting that he could finish in the top 25 in league scoring, and he certainly has the ability to do so. His shooting percentage is consistently higher than average, which is a good indicator that his 40-goal season in 2019 was absolutely no fluke, and that some bad injury luck is why he’s fallen off the radar a little bit.
Hidden gem: Bryan Rust, LW/RW
Rust is coming off two excellent seasons during which he was on pace for at least 30 goals both times. He’s 29 years old and an unrestricted free agent next summer, and it might be his last chance to cash in on a big money, long-term contract. He’s kind of a forgotten wheel among first-line players because Crosby and Guentzel usually get all the attention, and he’s definitely not a passenger on that line.
In fact, according to naturalstattrick.com, Crosby and Guentzel’s 5v5 CF% numbers dip considerably when they’re not on the ice with Rust, who also ranked second on the team (min. 20 GP) behind Jared McCann. His ADP of 109.7 in Yahoo leagues seems rather low considering he’s a proven first-line player and right wing is a rather shallow position. Both older veterans who are starting to fall off a little bit, such as Blake Wheeler and Alexander Radulov, and riskier young players, such as Martin Necas, are all getting drafted ahead of Rust.
Goalies: There is no help coming. Louis Domingue was an early September signing to shore up depth, and beyond the career journeyman backup it’s Alex D’Orio, who split time between the AHL and ECHL last season, and rookie Filip Lindberg, a Finnish goalie signed as a free agent this past summer following three seasons at UMass-Amherst.
That means they’re betting on a big bounce-back season from Jarry, who had a very poor start to the season – a 6-3 loss to the rival Flyers in the opener and getting pulled 11 minutes into his second game, also against the Flyers – and even at his best never seemed to keep your confidence for very long.
It’s a good thing the Pens don’t seem to really trust DeSmith, either, who didn’t play a single minute in the playoffs even when Jarry was struggling. That alone is a hint that Jarry will still have tons of fantasy value this coming season because the Pens seem committed to letting him work it out, making it unlikely for him to lose the starting job barring a monumental collapse. Starting goaltenders with heavy workloads are very scarce these days, so Jarry should easily be a top-15 fantasy goalie simply through playing volume. His 112.9 ADP on Yahoo just seems far too low; even if you’re not convinced of his ability, the Pens are still a solid team and he’s no less risky than goalies in a timeshare, such as Jack Campbell (66.1) and Petr Mrazek (83.7), or even Carey Price (61.6) and Jordan Binnington (86.1).
Outlook: The Metro is going to be tough; the Caps, Isles and Canes will all be vying for playoff spots, and the Rangers, Flyers and Devils should all improve. With Crosby and Malkin absent to start the season and McCann traded to the Leafs, it will force the Pens to start the season with Jeff Carter as their No. 1 center. He looked rejuvenated following his trade from L.A., but the 36-year-old is ill-suited for this role and the Pens’ top-six depth is not really a strength. If they can ride that out until Crosby returns, the Pens should have a good chance to make the playoffs, and both Hextall and Burke will surely be aggressive in making sure their Cup window stays open as long as Crosby is still on their roster.
Malkin, on the other hand, is watching his fantasy value crater in the latter stages of his career due to injury. He’s still a great option for points when healthy, but he rarely is these days and the aspects of his game that always needed improvement – mainly defensive play – are unlikely to ever do so at this point. He’s a player you’d be glad to stash in fantasy, but in most cases should be drafted after Guentzel, Rust and Letang. Malkin’s injury will cost him roughly one-quarter of the season, and that’s without any setbacks, so depending on your league’s settings could even finish the season with fewer points than Carter, Kapanen and Zucker. When it comes to the Pens in fantasy, focus on that top line of Crosby, Guentzel and Rust, Letang on defense and make sure Jarry doesn’t slip too far in the draft.