Business as usual for Pittsburgh
Although they weren’t able to complete a three-peat, the Penguins are still Cup contenders. Matt Murray will look for a bounce-back season as the Pens will battle for top spot in the Metro.
The Penguins are arguably the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL. Defensively, they gave up a lot in transition but it wasn’t enough that they couldn’t outscore their problems. A step forward from their goaltenders would be welcome this season.
What went right:
Pittsburgh was once again an elite offensive team, which feels like business as usual for them. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel both had 90+ points, while Sidney Crosby just missed the mark with 89. Even more impressively, they took three of the four top spots in the league in powerplay points, as the offense operated like a well-oiled machine on its way to the best powerplay in the NHL and the 3rd most goals. Patric Hornqvist is still one of the best net-front players in the NHL, leading the league with 131 inner slot shots, 17 more than anyone else and recorded the 5th most deflections on net.
What Went Wrong:
Phil Kessel disappeared in the playoffs, scoring only one goal in 12 games after a 34-goal campaign. It wasn’t just a case of bad luck, where shots can’t find the back of the net. Kessel actually was very hesitant to pull the trigger, especially on the powerplay. Despite leading the team in powerplay time on ice, he only managed to have three shots on net in 12 games, a ridiculously low total for a scorer of his caliber.
In net, Matt Murray’s numbers dipped in his first season as the unquestioned starter. His defense didn’t do him any favors, as he faced more inner slot shots per game (5.73/game in 2016-17 vs 6.45 last season). This led to a .907 save percentage and a 2.92 GAA, a big step down from the year prior, where he posted .923 SV% and a 2.41 GAA. As a result, Pittsburgh was only 20th in goals against, an underwhelming performance.
Key Additions: Matt Cullen, Jack Johnson, Jimmy Hayes
Key Departures: Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick, Tom Kuhnhackl
Other Key moves: Re-signed Riley Sheahan, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust, Jamie Oleksiak, Tristan Jarry
Pittsburgh kicked off its off-season by trading Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to Buffalo to open up some cap space. At that point, speculations ran rampant across the league. Who were they targeting with that newfound cap space? Were they going to trade for Max Pacioretty or Jeff Skinner? Were they planning a splash in free agency? Those rumors were put to rest when Pittsburgh inked veteran defenseman Jack Johnson on a 5-year deal that left many puzzled.
The former 3rd overall pick was a healthy scratch during Columbus’ first-round playoff exit and he wasn’t much more impressive during the regular season. However, Johnson and his D partner in Columbus, David Savard, faced the toughest competition of the team’s three defense pairs. Johnson makes a good first pass and is an effective penalty killer. So long as he’s used on the 3rd pairing in Pittsburgh, he should add value on a team that likes to move the puck up ice quickly.
Pittsburgh also brought back a familiar face in Matt Cullen. Despite being the oldest player in the league last season at 41-years old, Cullen was still effective in limited minutes. He ranked 17th in shorthanded faceoff win percentage and still managed to score 11 goals while playing under 12 minutes per game. The Penguins also made sure to retain their own, with new deals to Riley Sheahan, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust, Jamie Oleksiak, and Tristan Jarry.
Next season preview
What could go right?
Daniel Sprong returned on a two-year deal worth $750k per, which could prove to be an absolute steal if his AHL performance is any indication. With the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Sprong scored 65 points in as many games, tied for 5th in the league. This earned him a cameo appearance of 8 games in Pittsburgh, during which he scored twice. If he is able to find a role on a line centered by either Crosby or Malkin, he could be yet another dangerous weapon in an already dominant Pittsburgh offense.
A bounce-back season from Matt Murray would make Pittsburgh an even more dangerous team. They put their trust in the young goalie after shipping Marc-Andre Fleury to Vegas during the expansion draft and, while he had some trouble, he has shown he can be a starter, with 49 appearances in each of the last two seasons. At only 24, he could take a step forward and truly establish himself as one of the premier goalies in the league.
What could go wrong?
As long as Crosby is on the team and playing at his usual level, the Penguins are in Cup or bust mode. While their offense is pretty much guaranteed a top-10 spot if everyone is healthy, the defense is an area of concern. Jack Johnson is in and Matt Hunwick is out, but neither are really needle-movers. Apart from those two, their blueline remains unchanged from the unit that gave up the 6th most inner slot shots, 9th most controlled entries and the most odd-man rushes in the NHL, even with injury-prone top defenseman Kris Letang in the lineup for all but three games. If he misses time again next season, Pittsburgh could actually regress from their already poor numbers.