There’s always optimism and brightness heading into a season. Daniel Sprong is going to score 30 goals for sure! If not 30, then darn sure 20! Kris Letang will regain his form! Sidney Crosby will get more luck and a better on-ice scoring percentage! Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel will just easily keep rolling off good seasons! Derick Brassard will find comfort and productivity!
All of this may just happen, or most of it anyways. But the picture of what is to be is never as bright or pure as before the season actually starts, when ideals are still to be chased.
So what reasons for concern are out there in the back of our minds? The potential landmines that could cripple any season. In this age of parity and the super-competitive three point overtime games, it doesn’t take much slipping to miss the playoffs entirely. Here’s what the Pittsburgh Penguins will need to avoid.
As a team so doggedly injured for important man-games from 2010-15, if you’re a Penguins fan, good health fortune is always number one with a bullet of things to worry about outside of your control. And this group isn’t a bunch of spring chickens, with most of their important players in Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang and Patric Hornqvist all over 30-years-old, making them relatively old in the hockey world.
In the 2017-18 regular season, health went pretty well for Pittsburgh. Crosby played all 82 games. So did previously cursed Olli Maatta. Letang and Malkin were both way healthier than a usual year for each, only missing a few games. By the playoffs, you couldn’t say the same. Hornqvist, Malkin, Brassard, Kessel, and Carl Hagelin were all banged up by playoff time.
Injuries are bound to happen in a contact sport, but when and for how long are the questions. Some are uncontrollable, but are important to monitor just the same.
Continued historic success on the power play
It’s been taken for granted just how good the Penguins power play was. 26.2% is an unbelievable stat. Go back to Bettman’s great lockout of 2004-05, and no team in a full season has ever been better in the past dozen years.
Pittsburgh was 26.7% at home, and 25.4% on the road. Consistent as the day is long. Kessel led the league in power play points with 42. Malkin and Crosby weren’t far behind with 38 apiece. Hornqvist’s 15 PPG ranked 3rd in the league even though he missed 12 games to injury.
With all that talent, the Penguins almost certainly will not be a 15% team next season, or even a 17-18% one. But if they hit a rut or confidence goes sideways, they could be in the 20ish percent range. That’s giving back a lot of goals in what’s usually a close league. The Penguins power play was almost impossibly good at the NHL level of coaching, penalty killing, and goaltending last season. Can they keep it going?
Matt Murray has a lot to prove. His save percentage in 2017-18 cratered — a far cry from the player who was one of the league’s most dominant goalies in flashes in 2016 and 2017 when he led his team to two Stanley Cup wins. His bounce back is important. His availability is important too. As the great Beau Bennett taught us, the best ability is availability. Murray needs to play more than his career high of 47 starts.
And then there’s the backup. Will it be Casey DeSmith or Tristan Jarry? And how hot will the seat be if whichever player wins the backup job struggles a bit early? Last season, Pittsburgh was boosted by these two goalies, who weren’t expected to have much a role in the NHL season when camp broke. But due to Antti Niemi’s atrocious play and Murray’s rollercoaster year, the Penguins were forced to play DeSmith/Jarry in a total of 34 games. The rookie duo found a way to get 20 wins and a .913 save percentage together. You’ll take that performance any day of the week from your backup goalies, but the question becomes if that is a performance they can replicate or not. Surely the Penguins won’t hope to lean so much on their backups if it can be avoided.