Last August we made some 2018-19 season predictions. A dead summer Sunday is as good a time as any to circle back and see what we got right (and maybe not so right).
#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 2016-17with 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.
Verdict: well, yes and no. The Pens in 2018-19 did improve their 5v5 offense as predicted, generating 182 goals. However, scoring across the whole league was way up, so that was only good enough for ninth place in the NHL. Injuries and cold streaks from important players like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist was a problem though, at times the Penguins felt a lot like a one line team that relied too heavily on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel to generate offense.
#2 Sidney Crosby’s right wing will be an issue all season
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.
Verdict: pretty accurate. Crosby only played 200+ minutes with three wingers (Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Simon). But he also had a rotating cast of wingers playing some games with him including Hornqvist, Jared McCann and even Derick Brassard. The Pens also grasped at straws and played Kessel with Crosby for 95 minutes, which isn’t a ton but still is by far the most in the Mike Sullivan era.
Rust fared the best there, however he also had extreme hot and cold stretches of production last year.
Still, the issues finding that second consistent winger for Crosby continues to plague the team. Crosby is a player that thrives on routine and familiarity and it helps him (and the team) when he can have constants on his line to know where they will be and how to find them all over the ice. Guentzel has obviously been a smash hit, scoring the most goals in a season of any Crosby winger last year. The other side still remains a question and prone to more switches and changes as the team rotates in the hot hand around the lineup. In a perfect world they probably could settle on a full-time RW for the first line, but no ideal candidate currently exists.
#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.
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.
That one went up in flames. Rutherford was very unhappy with the team’s early season slow start and sent former Stanley Cup important piece Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for Tanner Pearson in large reason to shake up the team and attract their interest and jolt them into performing better.
Not long after, he pulled the plug in the ill-fitted Daniel Sprong experiment, sending the winger to Anaheim in December for Marcus Pettersson. The Pens and Ducks hooked up again to trade Derek Grant for Joseph Blandisi in January.
And the biggest move of the year for the team happened about four weeks prior to the deadline when the Pens sent Brassard, Riley Sheahan and a couple draft picks to Florida for McCann and Nick Bjugstad.
So, hand up, bad prediction by your pals at Pensburgh. Never bet against an active Jim Rutherford. Shouldn’t have needed that lesson but got it anyways.
#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.
Despite lots of ice time with Malkin and Kessel, Hagelin only scored one goal and added two assists in the first 16 games of the season. As noted above, it would be the last 16 games he played in Pittsburgh being dealt for Pearson who was eventually traded for Erik Gudbranson.
Meanwhile, Hagelin got traded to Washington, fit in well and produced 11 points in 20 games in DC. Then re-signed with the Capitals for a reasonable $2.75 million cap hit. This is truly the darkest timeline.
#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
Ah, summer 2018, a simpler time when Rutherford tried to gaslight anyone who would listen that Jack Johnson could play either side of the ice, help on the penalty kill, power play and even strength (he couldn’t, and as expected Johnson was by far the worst performing defenseman on the team).
As a result, Letang’s minutes actually WENT UP from 2017-18 to 2018-19, he played 25:58 per game (third highest in the league, min 55 games). That part turned out better than OK, Letang was by far the best defenseman on the team, consistently tiled the ice in the Pens’ favor and helped Pittsburgh to drastically outscore the opposition while on the ice.
That all added up to Letang finishing sixth in Norris voting, which would have been higher had he not missed 20 games. A great performance and season for him, but now the Pens are in the exact same situation, but now with Letang a year older (and suffering another injury last season to his surgically repaired neck that he didn’t quite seem to totally bounce back from). It remains to be seen how long Pittsburgh can lean so heavily on their top defenseman, but for now they have no other alternative.
On second thought, I should have saved the Will Ferrell laughing GIF for right now on the idea Letang would play 22 minutes. He’s definitely going to be a 25+ minute a night player for as long as he can physically handle it, so the Pens might as well admit and plan for that inevitability that the coach is going to need to use him as much as humanly possible being as his skills dictate that.