When it comes to the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins I am fairly confident about a couple of things.
The first is that they are going to make the playoffs.
Second is that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are going to be the driving forces behind that because they still are three of the league’s elite players and are going to do what they do ... produce. They are going to carry the offense. They are going to a nightmare for teams to deal with on the power play. They are going to all probably be among the league’s top-15 scorers. This is what we should expect, this is what we should get.
When it comes to how far the Penguins are able to go once they reach the playoffs (and where they enter the playoffs for that matter — division champion? Top-three in the Metropolitan Division? Wild Card team?) will depend largely on what happens with these five players that are not Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Phil Kessel.
Matt Murray — Nothing changes a team quite like goaltending does. After helping backstop the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups in his first two years in the league (and playing exceptionally during each postseason run) his first full-year as a starter did not go as anyone planned. After having one of the league’s best save percentages in 2015-16 and 2016-17, that number dropped all the way down to 34th out of 42 goals (minimum 30 appearances) and it was not really much better in the playoffs. Overall, it was just a tough year for him on and off the ice. He is a remarkably confident player and if there is one player on the team whose mindset I would never really worry about, it just might be him.
He has the exact attitude and focus you want in your starting goalie. Despite that, and despite the early career success, I still feel like Murray is a bit of a mystery when it comes to what he is as a player. Even though it seems like he’s been around for a while, and even though he’s already accomplished so much, he has still played fewer than 160 games in the NHL. Some of them have been great. Some of them have not. It feels like he’s still at a crossroads as to where his career can go.
The start was amazing, and after two years in the NHL had posted a .925 save percentage through his first 62 regular season appearances. In the history of the league (via the Hockey-Reference database) there have only been 10 goalies that had a .920 save percentage or better through first two seasons (minimum 60 games played). That list: Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Cam Talbot, Niklas Backstrom, Martin Gerber, Jonas Hiller, Roman Cechmanek, Doug Favel, Marty Turco, and Murray. There are two Hall of Famers (Dryden and Esposito) there and a couple of good starters (Backstrom, Hiller, Turco), and then a couple of guys that never really repeated the early success.
Which path does Murray follow? We are about to start finding out this season.
Kris Letang — This is an obvious pick because he is their most talented defenseman, their most important defenseman, and a defenseman that when he is at his best and on top of his game has a skillset and makes an impact that can only be matched by a handful of other players around the league. We did not see that Kris Letang in 2017-18. At least not as often as anyone in Pittsburgh would have liked to.
Still, there are reasons to believe he can — and will — be better. A full year recovered from the injury that sidelined him for half of the 2016-17 season and slowed him down at the start of this past season being one of them. The other: Even with all of his struggles he still posted great underlying numbers and seemed to be one of the players on the team that was hurt by the struggles in net. I mentioned this in an article at NBC just after the playoffs and think it is worth repeating here, but of the NHL’s top-20 defenseman in shot attempt differential Letang was one of just five to finish the season with a negative goal differential during 5-on-5 play. The other four all played for the Carolina Hurricanes.
That doesn’t totally remove all blame from Letang, of course. He still struggled and was not the player he has been in the past. But that player, I believe, is still in there, and if it is that is a game-changer for the Penguins.
Derick Brassard — For whatever reason Pittsburgh did not get to see the best of what Brassard can offer this team, and given a fresh start he should be in a position to make the impact that was expected of him. Based on his preseason play, he is off to a good start (65 percent Corsi to go with three goals and an assist in three games).
If he manages to do that he once again gives the Penguins the three-center model that has been such an advantage for them over the years. There is going to come a point where Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin don’t carry the offense for a stretch of games, and it is going to be up to the third and fourth lines to help pick up that slack when it happens. Having third-and fourth-lines that could outscore and outplay their foes much was one of the biggest factors in the back-to-back Stanley Cup winning seasons. The lack of that was a big factor in not going further this past season.
Jack Johnson — When the Penguins were first mentioned as having a heavy interest in Johnson I didn’t get it. I got it even less when they committed five years and more than $16.25 million dollars to him. The justification people tried to counter with was that the salary cap hit itself isn’t that bad, and he is not going to be a major player on defense and will probably be a third-pairing player.
The problems with that are 1) who dedicates five years and $16 million to a third-pairing defender, and 2) it does not look like he is going to be a third-pairing defender, at least based on what we have seen so far in camp and the preseason.
My problem with Johnson is that every team he has played on throughout his career, no matter the coach, no matter the system, no matter the quality of the team has seen significantly worse results with him on the ice (in terms of shots, shot attempts, goals for, goals against ... everything) as opposed to when he is off the ice. At some point it’s not a fluke or an accident anymore, and I don’t know that the fix is as simple as “let Sergei Gonchar fix him.” I feel like after a decade in the league what you see is what you are going to get with a player.
If he turns out to be a third-pairing defender that isn’t asked to be a top defender maybe it works out okay. But if they try to make him more than that ... well ... I am just not sure how that is going to go.
Jake Guentzel — Just to once again emphasize the point we made a week ago with Guentzel. This is a huge year for him both personally and for the team. For him, he is playing for a new contract and a significant raise after the season as a restricted free agent. For the team, it is another year of him on an entry-level contract meaning they are getting a likely top-line winger for less than a million dollars against the salary cap. We know the type of player he can be when he is paired alongside Sidney Crosby, and he is almost certain to see a lot of minutes on the captain’s wing, but we also need to see a little more from him independent of Crosby. He scored 22 goals a season ago, but it was at times a very quiet 22 goals. He’s a really good, talented player that has already accomplished a lot, but I think he can be even better than he has been. That would be a big advantage for the Penguins if he gets to that level.