Heading to a season, there are always players looking to prove themselves. Whether it’s a big free agents signing looking to show they were worth the financial commitment, a young player looking to make a name or a trade target looking to redeem himself, there’s always individual storylines to follow. Here’s the best ones for the Pittsburgh Penguins entering the 2018-19 season.
This one is pretty obvious. One of the most controversial and panned signings in the whole league this summer, the Pens gave defenseman Jack Johnson a five year contract worth $3.25 million per year. That’s a lot for a 31-year old player with a career’s worth of terrible metrics and who ended the Columbus Blue Jackets portion of his career as a healthy scratch.
Simply put, while many doubt Johnson will be able to live up to expectations, he still has a lot on his plate to try to do just that.
If you’re trying to take a glass half full perspective, there is one area where Johnson has excelled and where the Pens have pretty obviously bet he can add something to their team.
“You go back to the two years we won the Cup,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said earlier this month, “and we had a tremendous transition game. In that transition game, you have to have defensemen that can move the puck.”
Per the NHL Network, for regular defensemen making outlet passes from the defensive-zone Johnson ranked 6th in the league with a 73.5% rate of success.
And that seems to be the grand gamble the Pens have made. Will Johnson be the guy who had 73 points in two season from 2013-15, or the more recent one who only has 48 total points in the last three seasons (2015-18)?
While there’s a ton of data that says Johnson won’t be a successful addition, there’s little doubt heading into the year he certainly has a lot to live up to.
Derick Brassard is in an interesting spot. His 2017-18 probably didn’t go as expected or hope ending with just 1 goal and 4 points in 12 playoff games after being limited by an injury. Still, in just the 14 regular season games he played as a Penguin he did score 8 points and generally settle in well for the latter half of that sample.
The 3rd line center job in Pittsburgh always catches a lot of eyes. The player is behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, which in the past for players like Jordan Staal and Brandon Sutter has meant a heavy arrangement of defensive zone draws. However, under Mike Sullivan in his “three line” strategy with Phil Kessel split away from the star centers, the Pens third line center job has become a jack-of-all-trades role. They want to exploit matchups against weaker competition, but still be counted on for less than favorable zone-starts and some penalty killing responsibility too.
Brassard will be a free agent at season’s end too. At age-31 this may be his last chance at a big contract. He’s had seasons of 46, 39, 58 and 60 points the lat four campaigns. He might not get enough PP time to come close to 60 this season, but should be above 40 in a full year to set himself up for that paycheck.
Many pixels have already been posted on the internet about the future, potential, hopes and dreams for the Pens talented 21-year old winger. There’s not much more to repeat here. Sprong is a gifted offensive-minded player but one that hasn’t earned the trust of Sullivan yet. By virtue of his waiver status, Sprong must stay in the NHL this year. The Pens brass is playing at least lip service to the notion he will be an important member of the team, and to that end there probably is an open spot on Crosby’s right wing.
Will Sprong be afforded much of an opportunity to fill that role? His 2017-18 NHL stint was eight games where he only scored points in one of those games, but that was a one goal two assist night where he was one of the best players on the ice. His possession numbers are strong. His shots on goal faded big time as his NHL games went on. Many are seeing the bright side of his performance, aided by finishing strong in the AHL where a late-season sruge pushed him to a 32 goal, 65 point season in 65 games down on the farm. That’s very good, but can he do it in the show? Will he be given the chance and a long enough audition to show it? And how many minutes can Sprong get on a right wing depth chart that already includes natural RW’s in Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust?
There are many questions around Sprong, which leads to many answers that need to be provided. That’s a lot to prove.
(Narrator voice: he did not choke)
At first glance, it seems crazy to think a goalie with 28 playoff wins (8 in the Stanley Cup Final to put two rings on his fingers) who just celebrated his 24th birthday a couple months ago needs to “prove” anything to anyone. And, to an extent, there’s a valid point there- everyone knows that Murray at his best is capable of doing amazing things.
But after a dull 2017-18 on the ice that featured injuries and fewer starts than 2016-17 (47 to 45) despite being now “the guy” for the first full season. Murray does have a bit to show as a bounce back. Can he get to 50 career starts for the first time in a year? 60? And for a player with a .933% and .932% Even Strength Save Percentage in his first two seasons, that fell to a mediocre .911% in 2017-18, Murray will certainly to look to rebound a bit from a tough season.
Murray has obviously shown a lot in his young career, but now what he’s really looking to prove is that he can be a solid, full-time #1 goalie for a full season. Murray doesn’t have too many “firsts” left to record but that would be one in his sights.
Matt Murray surely has a career’s worth of achievements already, yet still much to still accomplish. For that, his 2018-19 will be as intriguing and unknown as about anyone on the team.
Which player has the most to prove for the Penguins next season?
This poll is closed