The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 12-1
Key Additions: Jack Johnson, D; Matt Cullen, C; Derek Grant, C; Jimmy Hayes, RW; Juuso Riikola, D
Key Departures: Conor Sheary, LW; Matt Hunwick, D; Tom Kuhnhackl, RW; Carter Rowney, C
With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, the Penguins always have a shot at the Stanley Cup, and this season is no exception. It took a tremendous psychological breakthrough (and a clutch goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov) for Washington to finally beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and the status quo could easily revert back this season: Sid’s not known for losing, after all.
Phil Kessel is still one of the most dangerous wingers in the NHL, while No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang proved last year he can still be effective after his serious neck injury. Needless to say, Pittsburgh having the top-ranked power play in the league last season was no fluke. The Penguins’ offensive attack ranked third in the NHL. Brian Dumoulin is one of the most low-key efficient defenders around, while coach Mike Sullivan has perfected the fast-paced, possession hockey that has set the pace in the NHL the past several years.
With their experience and top-end talent, the Pens just have to make the playoffs in order to have a good shot to win their third Cup in four years. Pittsburgh remains one of the best teams in the East and the favorite to come out of the Metropolitan bracket.
The Penguins didn’t have a very good summer. GM Jim Rutherford had to include Conor Sheary in a salary-dump trade with Buffalo that got Matt Hunwick off the books, and then Rutherford turned around and sunk that money into an anchor five-year deal for Jack Johnson, who was last seen on the outskirts of Columbus’ defense corps. Rutherford also brought back soon-to-be 42-year-old Matt Cullen in a move that speaks to the dearth of NHL-ready prospects in Pittsburgh.
Jake Guentzel only seems to score in the playoffs, and with the loss of Sheary, the Penguins are suddenly looking thin on the wings. In his first year without Marc-Andre Fleury, goalie Matt Murray looked vulnerable. With a very good team in front of him, Murray still got the wins, but his pedestrian .907 save percentage was unsettling. Tristan Jarry couldn’t seize the backup job, and while Casey DeSmith was good in spot duty, there isn’t much of a safety net if Murray gets hurt (again) or struggles long term.
The Pens will still make the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if a rival with a chip on its shoulder – hello, Columbus and Philadelphia – knocks them out in the first round.
Who breaks through to provide secondary scoring?
The top-end talent in Pittsburgh is unmistakable with Crosby and Malkin mortal locks for point per game campaigns or better. Kessel has also proven repeatedly that he can be a top-tier scorer, and is coming off of a career-best 92-point campaign. Patric Hornqvist is also a 50-point player when healthy. But beyond that, questions abound regarding depth scoring in Pittsburgh.
The Derick Brassard experiment didn’t work out as expected last season, as he managed 12 points in 26 games as a Penguin across the regular and post-season, and none of Cullen, Bryan Rust or Riley Sheahan are expected to be more than here-and-there contributors. Carl Hagelin is coming off of a poor season — 10 goals and 31 points in 81 games — and neither Derek Grant or Jimmy Hayes brings much in the way of secondary scoring.
Don’t count out Pittsburgh producing a few surprise scorers, though. Of course, Guentzel will skate alongside Crosby and pile up some points, but Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese and especially Daniel Sprong all exist as potential breakout scorers. Simon performed well in limited minutes last season (four goals, 12 points) across 33 games, and Aston-Reese (four goals, six points) was similarly productive in his 16-game opportunity in the bigs. Sprong is the real wild-card, though. His 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games in the AHL last season were incredibly impressive for a first-year pro, and he’s considered the best prospect in the Penguins’ system.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 3rd in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh won’t dominate the division, but they can win when it matters most. So, despite finishing lower in the standings, the Penguins can be expected to make a real run of it once the post-season begins. Would you expect anything less from Crosby and Co.?
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