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Penguins season previews are starting to appear

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Adam Gretz and the NHL turn focus to preview the Penguins. What we learned...and didn’t.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

A couple of interesting, broad focus perspective season previews for the Penguins are popping up.

First we start with NHL.com:

There’s a bit of fan outrage and triggering over the implication that Phil Kessel needs a bounce back year. Homie just set a career-high with 92 points. Sure, his play in the playoffs was sloppy and frustrating, as he couldn’t do simple things like control the puck or play his shots and passes with the normal zip on it, almost like he was battling an injury or something. Anyway, with nine points in 12 playoff games, if that’s a “bad” playoff performance, the team has other issues. You definitely need Kessel to score more than one goal, but if he’s making a shot or pass that hits off of Sidney Crosby and goes into the net...what’s the difference?

Hopefully Kessel can have exactly the regular season in 2018-19 that he did last year. Maybe he won’t get all the bounces. Maybe the Pens’ No. 1 power play (with Phil No. 1 in the league in power play points) will regress a little, and his points will decline as a result. No big deal.

There’s always at least a little sound and fury around Kessel; some of that no doubt by his own doing with his outward carefree appearance and attitude, but there’s no bounce back needed. Phil just has to perform. His extensive track record shows that he’s likely to do just that.

***

Let’s switch gears over to a series of really strong articles from Adam Gretz and Sean Leahy over at NHL.NBCsports.com.

On Jamie Oleksiak, Gretz wrote (in part):

In his debut with the Penguins Oleksiak played the best hockey of his career and started to show at least some of the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The Penguins gave him more freedom offensively, allowed him to join the rush and jump into the offensive zone, and just kind of turned him loose a little bit. The result was Oleksiak setting a new career high in points (17) and nearly matching his career total prior to the season, finishing as a positive in shot attempt metrics, and looking like he might be able to establish himself as a regular on their blue line.

It earned him a three-year, $6.1 million contract extension this summer.

The reputation of the Penguins’ — and Gonchar’s specifically — ability to work with and improve defensemen has kind of taken on a life of its own over the past year and is starting to become a little overstated. They’re not taking these players and turning them into Norris Trophy contenders or top-pairing defenders. And that is certainly the case with Oleksiak. Even now his best use is probably going to be as a solid third — and perhaps maybe a second — pairing defender. But that is still a big step forward from where he was in Dallas where he was not getting much playing time, was struggling to perform in those opportunities, and didn’t look like he had much of a future in the NHL.

Oleksiak’s PDO last year (with Pittsburgh) was second highest on the team. He played well, but a lot of events on the ice outside of his control (i.e., teammates scoring, goalies making saves, etc.) “went right” for him, no doubt influencing the memory and perception of just how strong of a season he had.

Oleksiak’s Corsi For-percent of all regular players was 13th out of 23. That’s not to say he can’t have the same type of season next year (with 37 Goals For while on the ice at even strength compared to just 28 against), but this is a player as I’ve kind of been warning and hinting all summer might be bound for a bit of regression in overall performance.

Especially since Oleksiak is a third-pairing defenseman and his partner might just be the player Leahy mentions as “under pressure” in Jack Johnson...

Since the start of the 2006-07 season (Johnson’s debut year) there have been more than 356 defensemen that have played at least 100 games in the NHL. Johnson’s 48 percent Corsi rating is 275th out of that group.

Just looking at the past five years his 47.9 mark is 204th out of 259 defenders.

In other words: When Jack Johnson is on the ice his team is getting badly outshot and badly outscored. That is a terrible combination

Not going to harp on it or pound the drum any more than it needs to be, but it goes without saying that how Johnson fits in and starts out with the Penguins will be a very interesting and a key bit to watch early in camp and the season.

It’s been a long time since the Penguins actually signed a free agent for $3+ million in a summer. It’s usually the same old stories and faces in camp. So, if nothing else it will be something new.

***

Gretz touches on a sobering realization that now at age 31, Sidney Crosby may be past his scoring title winning days for good.

Among the NHL’s most prolific scoring champions…

Wayne Gretzky only won one of his 11 scoring titles after his 31st birthday, and only had two other top-five finishes.

Only one of Gordie Howe’s six scoring titles came after turning 31.

All five of Jaromir Jagr’s came before turning 30, with his last one coming at age 28. He finished in the top-10 just twice after age 30, with only one top-five finish.

Guy Lafleur never won a scoring title after age 26.

Phil Esposito won four of his five before turning 31 (his fifth came in his age 31 season). After turning 31 he had one top-10 finish in seven years.

The last of Stan Mikita’s four scoring titles came at age 27, while his Blackhawks teammate Bobby Hull won all three of his before turning 28.

Interestingly, a name left off the list that might give some hope was Mario Lemieux. Lemieux won his last scoring title in 1996-97, which was Mario’s age-31 season, the exact season Crosby enters now. (Side note: this would be Lemieux’s first retirement. How crazy is it that Sid is as old now as Mario was in ‘97 when he walked away from the game?)

Lemieux also had the highest point/game rate in 2000-01, but only played half the season, as that was the year he made his comeback. It’s obviously never any easy comparison to live up to (“Hey Sid, all ya gotta do is be Mario Lemieux!”) but there’s some evidence of Lemieux still being a super-elite player at 35-years-old.

There’s lots of preview talk, and we’re almost out of the desert — I promise. It’s another Friday, which makes for another tidy reminder on training camp; it officially opens in Pittsburgh just three weeks from today.