Two weeks from today, training camp begins. Until then, we’ll offer some tried and true
filler time err, extremely accurate prognostications.
#1 The Pens 5v5 offense will be tangibly better in 2018-19 than it was in 2017-18
Perhaps the easiest prediction of all. In 2017-18, the Penguins scored 161 5-on-5 goals. While that was good for 12th in the league, which isn’t bad - it is quite a fall from being 2nd in 2016-17 with 187 5v5 goals. Pittsburgh may not be back to that high of a level exactly, but they’ll be closer to 2nd than 12th next season at even strength scoring.
They have offensive talent and even strength scoring was inexplicably tough to come by for players like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, whose scoring chances didn’t go down, but pucks in the net did. Elite players like that don’t go cold for long, and their bounce back will help fuel the Pens up from 12th in the league in scoring back closer to 2nd.
#2 Sidney Crosby’s right wing will be an issue all season
The aging out of Chris Kunitz has no doubt led to a lot more uncertainty in recent seasons for the Pens top line. In 2017-18, Sidney Crosby played 200+ minutes with five different wingers (Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and Dominik Simon). That’s up from four 200+ wingers in 2016-17, and just two common wingers in 2015-16. Crosby’s wingers used to be a constant for many years in the Kunitz-Pascal Dupuis era, but now are a lot more fluid.
By virtue of playoff success, it seems Guentzel has etched his name in as the near constant Crosby left wing. The right side, however, is set to still be very much in flux. By the strong advanced metrics, as we’ve predicted, expect Simon to get a long look early. Simon’s been prone to not be all that productive, so he probably isn’t the long-term answer. Players like Hornqvist and Rust are always options to rotate up from time to time, but coach Mike Sullivan hasn’t stuck with them for long stretches in the same spot.
Daniel Sprong remains a wild-card, but a line with Guentzel+Sprong as wingers doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of defensive confidence and like it or not that has been a consideration of line construction.
Either way, with no clear #1RW (besides Phil Kessel whose style is oil-and-water with Sid at even strength), expect the Pens top line to have constant turnover as the team perpetually searches for the proverbial “hot hand” to play with 59+87.
#3 No trades until the deadline
This is kind of risky since general manager Jim Rutherford loves to make deals early, but he really has no need to as of right now. Might as well let the team settle in for the first 40-50-60 games and see where they’re at and what needs boil up to address due to injury or lacking performance.
It makes sense too, the longer the Pens can avoid a trade the more cap space they can build up. If the team elects to go with 13 forwards and assigns Zach Aston-Reese to the minors, they will have $1.67 million in cap space on opening day. That number won’t hold since injuries and call-ups will eat into it a bit, but assuming full health they would be able to acquire up to a $6 million player at the trading deadline, due to the pro-rated way the salary cap is calculated on a daily basis.
Ever since the 2008 acquisition of Marian Hossa pushed Pittsburgh to the tippy-top upper limit of the salary cap, they have never had so much salary cap space either entering a season, or projected out for the trade deadline as they do right now.
If used correctly, that’s as much of a weapon to open up flexibility down the line as any early season trade. Rutherford’s a smart guy and knows that, plus independent of that he has built a very deep team right now and they deserve a chance to see what they can do together before any tinkering happens. And, these days the trade market seems very tight and not too many GMs out there are making a ton of trades. Because of all these factors - no major trades will happen for the Pens until late in the season.
#4 No early season slump for Hagelin
It may seem like the boldest take of all, being as Carl Hagelin is coming off years of 31 and 22 points in the last two seasons - and is a notorious slow starter to seasons. But saying “no early season slump” is relative. Hagelin only had 6 points in the first 43 games of 2017-18, predicting he starts a little better than that isn’t a stretch, but it’s a prediction we’ll make nonetheless.
From 2012-17, just take a look at Hagelin’s playoff games each spring: 17, 12, 25, 19, 24, 15. Last year due to injury he only played in 9 of the Pens post-season games. But it’s still the longest summer he’s had in quite some time. Pretty simple that a longer summer = more recovery and training time.
Throw in it’s a contract year for Hagelin PLUS his advanced stats with Evgeni Malkin are off-the-charts good and a lot of factors for the speedy Swede are lining up to indicate it should be a good season. He may not even set career highs in both goals (17) or points (39) but since this is a bold prediction piece, let’s go ahead and say don’t be surprised if he achieves one or the other.
#5 Kris Letang still plays 23+ minutes per game
Another year, another year where the Penguins want to monitor Kris Letang and his ice time. As Rutherford told The Athletic:
“It’s been a year now,” Rutherford said. “He’s gotten through that critical year after the surgery, and him going back to those big minutes may work again. That’s what I’ll be watching for. You know, Kris has all the ability in the world. That absolutely has not gone away. He didn’t have his best year last year and everyone knows that. His minutes will be important to monitor. But now that it’s been a year, it might well be that he’ll be at his best playing 27 minutes a night. Or maybe we need to pull it back to 24, or even 22. We just need to see how it goes.”
Letang averaged a whopping 25:20 (8th most in the entire league, minimum 30 games) in 2017-18, just months removed from a major neck surgery that greatly inhibited his ability to work out and one he was barely cleared to take the ice for in time for training camp.
As even Letang will tell you, it was one of the defenseman’s worst seasons, and yet the team still kept leaning on him and playing him huge minutes. And why not? He’s the best defenseman on the team, and surely that has not changed over this off-season.
Letang’s overall numbers might be down from 25:20, but it won’t be by much. He’ll still lead the team in total even strength minutes/game, and he’ll still play a heavy load of penalty kill. Justin Schultz might eat into some of the power play time but overall not much will change - Pittsburgh will still rely on their top horse to pull the wagon and Letang will still be the workhorse, by far the #1 option on the blueline and his ice time will still reflect that.