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Another season preview: what will be the three biggest questions around the Penguins?

Another day, another outlook on the upcoming season

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

Over at the main NHL page yesterday they did a preview of the Penguins and asked three key questions. So let’s check them out and try to offer some expected answers to the questions.

1. Can Matt Murray start fast?

By the end of last season, Murray resembled the goalie who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2016 and again in 2017. That wasn’t the case in October and November, when the 25-year-old’s injuries and early-season struggles led to coach Mike Sullivan giving Casey DeSmith a majority of the starts.

Entering his fifth NHL season, Murray will be counted on to perform like a No. 1 goalie from the moment the season opens.

”I try not to really carry any expectations,” Murray said. “I just try to go out there, play my game, and try to get better each and every day.”

There’s no reason why Murray shouldn’t start fast. A lot is made of his early season struggles last year, but flush that and go back further and Murray was 7-2-1 in October 2017 (albeit with a .903 save% and 3.05 GAA).

The real issue and more pertinent question, as is common for the Penguins, is not really how the goalie will play — it’s how will the TEAM in front of the goalie play?

Time and again we’ve seen Pittsburgh sleepwalk through the first 20-25 games of the season, not really focus on details, and just try to outscore teams. Thus why Murray could be 7-2-1 in October 2017 while giving up 3 goals a game, that tells you there were a lot of goals scored and not a lot of defense being played.

Murray also may or may not have a contract extension by early 2019-20 regular season, and as we’ve already predicted expect him to be dialed in and ready to prove why he ought to get a big raise for his next contract.

2. Can Alex Galchenyuk replace Phil Kessel?

Replacing Kessel, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes on June 29, likely will be done by committee. But a bulk of the responsibility will fall on Galchenyuk after the 25-year-old forward was acquired in the trade for Kessel, along with defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

Galchenyuk seems destined for one of Pittsburgh’s top two lines, likely playing on either wing with second-line center Evgeni Malkin. After he had 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) last season, his lowest total since he had 31 (13 goals, 18 assists) for the Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14, Galchenyuk likely will produce more playing with Malkin or first-line center Sidney Crosby.

Although Kessel had 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) last season and 92 points (34 goals, 58 assists) in 2017-18, Galchenyuk said he isn’t focused on replacing Kessel’s production. Instead, he wants to make sure he brings the best version of himself to Pittsburgh.

”I think I’m ready for it physically and mentally,” Galchenyuk said. “Just looking forward to coming to Pittsburgh, to a winning culture. ... Just enjoy my time there and work hard to help the team to get to the ultimate goal, which is the Stanley Cup.”

It will be fascinating to watch what Alex Galchenyuk can do in Pittsburgh. He’s younger than Kessel, should have fresher legs and is a skilled player.

Yet for all the mostly media-driven talk that Phil Kessel wasn’t that good at 5-on-5 last year, the Thrill stilled recorded 43 5v5 points (15 goals + 28 assists). Ironically Phil had 41 5v5 points in 2017-18 and 37 5v5 points in 2016-17, so it’s almost like lazy sports talk personalities and writers just like bending a narrative they’re stuck on.

Anyways, Galchenyuk’s seven year season high is 36 5v5 points (19g+17a).

While there is a lot of hope that Galchenyuk will flash or flourish and find some great new gear playing with the Pens, the truth of the matter is he pretty much is what he is. For those hoping against hope the Pens haven’t “lost much at 5-on-5”, hope isn’t a very good strategy, but it’s the only one that remains.

...And oh yeah, you lose Kessel who ran the league’s overall #1 power play at 23.0% for the 2015-19 time period he was in Pittsburgh. Good luck replacing that, there’s only one way to go from here.

So it’s not if Galchenyuk can replace what Kessel did in Pittsburgh (even in a “down” season), it’s just how much is the downgrade going to hurt the Penguins.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin rebound?

Malkin said he was disappointed by his performance last season, when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) and was minus-25, the worst rating of his 13-season NHL career.

Late in the season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins became more reliant on Crosby and forward Jake Guentzel to carry the load offensively. Without Malkin contributing consistently, Pittsburgh’s options were limited.

If the Penguins want to get back to contending for a championship this season, they will need Malkin to return to his form from 2017-18, when he had 98 points (42 goals, 56 assists) and was plus-16.

This will be another interesting point to watch.

To quote more from the earlier Pensburgh prediction article of the week:

There’s also the availability issue being as Malkin has played: 68, 78, 62, 57 and 69 games in the last five years. It’s tough to have a really transcendent type of bounce back and play to full potential (which is vast!) when missing 10-20 games most seasons. Players don’t get healthier as they get older.

An aspect I’ll be curious to see is what is a “bounce back” that so many media members are talking about, that’s pretty open ended. Does he need 40 goals? 100 points? Just to exceed last year’s 72 points and improve on +/-?

With Malkin at age 33, I’m buying in on tempering expecting huge individual greatness out of him as we’ve been accustomed to. I’d be happily surprised if he can dig deep and showcase one more magical year, and it’s not an impossibility.