It has been assumed for most of the offseason that the success or failure of the 2019-20 Penguins is going to depend on what their top players do, specifically Evgeni Malkin and his ability to bounce back from what was — by his own admission — a down year.
I get that mindset.
The Penguins are defined by their stars, and their stars are going to be the ones that have to drive them. But is their ability to do so really that big of a question? As long as they stay healthy there should be a high level of confidence that Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Matt Murray, and yes, Evgeni Malkin, are going to pull their end of the weight and do what they need to do.
Even if they do, it still might not be enough to get the Penguins to where they want to be. We saw what happened between 2012 and 2015 when Crosby and Malkin were still in their primes and didn’t have an adequate supporting cast around them — the team fell short, and in one of those years (the 2014-15 season) needed a win in Game 82 just to clinch a playoff spot.
You need your superstars, but you also need players around them.
It is going to be the players around the top players that are going to dictate where this season goes.
When I look at this Penguins roster I see a bunch of “wild card” players that we still don’t really know much about that are going to swing this season one way or the other. While some of these players have shown SIGNS of being good NHLers, the jury is still very much out on what exactly they are and what they are capable of. I am talking about players like Jared McCann, Marcus Pettersson, Erik Gudbranson, Dominik Kahun, Nick Bjugstad, and even Alex Galchenyuk to some extent.
These are the players the Penguins need to be good, because we still don’t exactly know what they have in any of them.
If they trend in a positive direction and become the players the Penguins want them to be, it solves all of the depth concerns at forward, it gives them two more capable defenders, and helps them become a team that is not entirely reliant on four or five stars at the top of the lineup.
If they are not good as good as the Penguins think and trend in the wrong direction, then the season probably goes down the wrong path as they again become a top-heavy team that will be reliant on a 32-and-older core of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang to carry them on their backs.
McCann is the most intriguing “wild card” player in that group because he really might have the ability to be a difference-maker.
He was always the key part of the Derick Brassard-Riley Sheahan trade with Florida and the player the Penguins wanted the most. (I am still convinced that McCann was the target and taking on Bjugstad’s remaining contract was the price required to get him; I don’t buy the “we always wanted Bjugstad for a couple years” talk. McCann was the player, and he always was.)
His debut with the team a year ago was encouraging when he showed an ability to put the puck in the net thanks to a quick release and a rocket of a shot. But there were still some questions entering the season because of an extremely high shooting percentage that was probably not sustainable and the fact that several of his goals after the trade were empty-netters. You can not really rely on those things to continue long-term.
So far through two games, he is off to an encouraging start.
He had one of the team’s few quality 5-on-5 chances in the season opener against Buffalo when he streaked down the middle of the ice and ripped a wide open shot between the circles. It did not go in, but it was a great look.
He followed that up with a three-point effort (two goals and an assist) when the Penguins played the role of Harlem Globetrotters against a Washington Generals looking Blue Jackets team.
CAN HE SCORE IT?— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 6, 2019
YES, HE MCCANN! pic.twitter.com/f4zqNYQ4G0
Jared McCann grabs the gorgeous Galchenyuk feed and tallies his second of the night!#LetsGoPens pic.twitter.com/YJSqtHUs9l— HD365 (@HockeyDaily365) October 6, 2019
McCann is so unique because he has the ability to play so many different roles. He can play the wing or at center, and he is not lost and out of place on the top line, and he can play on the third line. But it’s the latter role where the Penguins need him to excel. They need him to be a complementary player for the third line and help be able to carry a line ... maybe even as a center. I am still not convinced that Bjugstad is going to have much of a future here (he seems destined to be traded at some point, not only due to his contract, but because he just ... doesn’t really do a lot) which would open the door for McCann to take over as third-line center behind Crosby and Malkin. With Malkin and Bjugstad currently sidelined, we might get a chance to see him in the middle as soon as this week.
No matter where he plays, he is one of the second-level players that is going to play a big role in determining where this season goes.
If the Penguins can get 82 games of what they saw from him in the second half of last season, that could be a pretty big impact.