One big thing I have learned about the NHL over the past few years is that the idea of a Stanley Cup window is complete garbage and we should probably stop looking at teams in such a way.
After the 2014-15 season the Penguins’ window was thought to be closing, if not completely shut. Then they went out over the next two years and won the Stanley Cup each season, including one of a San Jose Sharks team whose window was apparently inching its way closed.
The Washington Capitals window was supposed to be closing after years of playoff disappointment and an aging core. Then they won the Stanley Cup.
Pretty much everyone had given up on the St. Louis Blues as a championship team because, well, what had they ever done to make anyone think they would ever be able to get through the top teams in the league? Then guess what they went out and did? They won the damn Stanley Cup.
As long as your team has elite players still playin at a reasonably high level your team is going to have a chance. The 2019-20 Penguins still have elite players playing at a reasonably high level, which means they still have a chance. But what exactly does that mean, and what should a realistic expectation for this team be?
With the start of the regular season here, let us take a look at those questions.
Whenever friends or family ask me what I am expecting from the Penguins this season my go-to answer has always been “I do not have a damn clue,” and I mean that in all sincerity because I really, really, really do not have a damn clue.
Because of the presence of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Matt Murray, and Jake Guentzel I think this team has an extraordinarily high ceiling. If everything goes right, and Trader Jim rediscovers his ability to push the right buttons, it would not shock me to see hockey being played in Pittsburgh into late May or early June.
But because everything around them (both within the roster and outside of it) is so uncertain I also think they also have a rather low floor and it would not totally shock me if they have to once again scratch and claw during the stretch run of the regular season just to make the playoffs. If they even do that.
The roster is still good, but flawed with questions
Most of us have been critical of Jim Rutherford’s roster construction the past three years, but let’s be very honest about something: Even with his missteps and mistakes, this is still a pretty good team on paper with the potential to be really good if everything goes right.
We know what the Penguins have at the top. Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Murray, Guentzel, and Brian Dumoulin (yes, I am including him in this group just because he is glued to Letang at the hip and is so steady in what he does) are going to do what they do.
So what are the flaws and the questions?
Let’s start with the forwards. Specifically the new players...
— Will Alex Galchenyuk be a suitable replacement for Phil Kessel?
— How good is Dominik Kahun?
— Will Patric Hornqvist rebound or is his career rapidly declining?
— Will Brandon Tanev give the Penguins what they think he can, or is this another roster move that gets undone within a year?
— Will they get something out of their third line?
This is not to suggest all of these are flaws, it is simply that we do not know how they are going to go for the Penguins.
Maybe Alex Galchenyuk excels next to Evgeni Malkin. It could happen. He could also be the same 20-goal, defensively flawed player he has been.
Maybe Hornqvist sees a jump in his shooting percentage after a miserable second half and is back to being a hell raiser. Or maybe this really is the beginning of the end for him.
Maybe Brandon Tanev is the new Carl Hagelin next to Malkin and a goal-scoring sniper on the other side. Or maybe he really is a 28-year-old depth player that has really only had one passable season in NHL.
Maybe Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann help form a strong third line and give the top-six the complementary pieces they need. Or maybe McCann’s post trade performance was inflated by a bunch of empty-net goals and unsustainable shooting run while Bjugstad turns out to be just a guy.
The point is any and all of these possibilities seem realistic.
If a couple of these questions and variables swing toward the positive, it definitely moves the needle in a meaningful way for the Penguins toward contention. If they swing the other way, problems will follow.
Then there is the defense.
Letang and Dumoulin is as good as you are going to get in the NHL on a top pairing and I have zero concerns about them.
But after that?
— Will Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson be able to duplicate what they did a year ago? If they can, that is probably your second best pairing. But will the coaching staff use them as such? And what if they are NOT as good?
— Jack Johnson is still in Pittsburgh, and it seems the coaching staff and front office is determined to make him be a thing here almost out of spite. If he plays second pairing minutes, or any meaningful minutes, he is going to be a drain on whatever pairing he is a part of. I am trying not to be hyperbolic or put too much on one player, but his impact on any pairing he is a part of is a major concern for this blue line.
— What does Justin Schultz do in a contract year? He has been here more three years and I still do not know what to expect out of him. He is regarded as a puck-mover, but isn’t great at actually moving the puck out of the defensive zone. He is good in the offensive zone but probably needs to be sheltered. The problem with that is you probably have two defense pairings that need to be sheltered right now.
The division is tough, but not completely daunting
This is the other factor here. Pretty much everybody else in the Metropolitan Division did something major this offseason.
The New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils both added a ton.
The Carolina Hurricanes were already a team on the rise and added Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel and will get a full year of Nino Neiderreiter and a potential breakout from Andrei Svechnikov.
The Philadelphia Flyers made a lot of moves, but I am not sure they are better. The big wild card for them is Carter Hart.
My expectations for Columbus are higher than most.
The point here is this is going to be a wildly competitive division with no off nights anywhere.
That said, if you asked me right now to say which teams are ABSOLUTELY better than the Penguins, the only one I would be confident in picking is the Washington Capitals.
Other than that, the other seven teams are going to be a jumbled mess and I could see them finishing in any order with none of it surprising me.
Set your expectations accordingly
So with all of that said, you should be ready for just about anything this season.
There is enough here to do something great. There are enough questions and potential flaws to disappoint you.
In the end, I think a strong realistic expectation here is making the playoffs and maybe winning a round with the possibility of a little more or a little less. That is not being afraid to make a prediction, it is simply the fact this team has a lot of questions and variables that could go either way this season.