For the last business day in August, NHL training camps will be just around the corner now. With camp comes opportunity...And also questions. Here’s what to watch for and think about on a Friday as we finally go down the stretch.
Zach Aston-Reese: can he have a good September? It’s almost lost in the shuffle now as a minor note, but last preseason was not kind to ZAR. He ended up starting the season in Wilkes-Barre. That was in part due to numbers and waiver status, but coming off summer 2018 jaw surgery, it was a tough start to the season that he and the Penguins will need better this year.
Nick Bjugstad: is the third line center job finally filled? The Penguins still haven’t successfully filled the “3C” spot since Nick Bonino skated away. Bjugstad looks the part and provided good possession stats (and a better-than-you-might-remember 14 points in 32 games with Pittsburgh last year) so they just might have finally found their answer.
Teddy Blueger: what does the future look like? The now 25-year old finally inherits an NHL roster spot all his own. No veterans like Matt Cullen or Riley Sheahan or Carter Rowney or anyone else penciled ahead of him for that slot. Blueger scored six goals and recorded ten points in 28 games last season, so what comes next?
Sidney Crosby: to 1,300 — and beyond? The league’s highest active, signed point scorer is 84 points shy of 1,300 for his career, a number that should be in his sights this year. But what else can Sid do — a Selke finalist season? Another Hart nomination? A run at a scoring title?
Alex Galchenyuk: are you an assassin...or an errand boy? As Marlon Brando asked in Apocalypse Now and the late great Dusty Rhodes used to rhetorically pose, Galchenyuk has a lot to prove. Is he the player who scored 30 in Montreal in 2015-16 or the guy who’s dropped off ever since? In a contract year, he’s got to show out. This is his chance to re-invent himself, step out of the desert and into the spotlight playing on a high-powered Pens team.
Jake Guentzel: where do you go from the top? Guentzel’s already led the NHL playoffs in scoring in 2017, and last season he proved it by notching 40 more tucks, 33 at even strength. He may get more and better power play chances now. But how do you improve upon rarefied heights as it is?
Patric Hornqvist: can he stay healthy? Hornqvist was solid in the beginning of the season (14 goals in the first 30 games), suffered a couple of concussions and never re-found his scoring touch afterwards (just four goals in the last 39 games). The Pens simply can’t have a player that important go that cold. And making five concussions in five years, is the worst behind him?
Dominik Kahun: what’s the niche for Mr. Versatile? Kahun has been a natural center, but played a lot of wing in Chicago. He was pretty decent at even strength and produced a good amount of points. The Pens like his speed and youth and are excited to see how he mixes in with them. Right now it could be first, second, third or fourth line - who knows! It’s time to figure it all out.
Evgeni Malkin: how much bounce is left for a bounce back? The media storyline and “bounce back” should make its own drinking game. The Pens need Malkin to be a positive player. They need him to put up points and not turn the puck over carelessly or take needless penalties. That was real issues last year. And now Malkin’s 33 years old. And has lesser linemates. So how much spring will he have for the bounce?
Jared McCann: is now the time? At 23, McCann’s already on his third organization. He’s played some center and some on the wing. Checking roles and scoring lines. A bit of power play, a bit of penalty killing. He’s caught some lightning in the bottle with the Pens (and is great at hitting empty nets) but hasn’t really put it together at 5-on-5. Is this his year?
Bryan Rust: will he even still be here? While there might be a narrow path to retain all the forwards, the writing is on the wall that someone will have to go sooner than later. Rust makes a decent salary, positive value and has a lack of no-trade protection, which makes him a trade target. And if the team starts slow, does he become this year’s Carl Hagelin that gets the boot to wake the rest of the group up?
Dominik Simon: can he translate possession to points? Simon does a ton of little things all over the ice to help the Pens, and some metrics suggest that the way he suppresses defensive chances against in the moments he plays are in the elite of the league. But he doesn’t score a lot of goals and for as good as his rate stats were, they didn’t end up that impressive in boxcars at the end of the year. For a team that needs young players to make moves, none would be better than Simon converting on the chances he will doubtlessly help create.
Brandon Tanev: literally, what’s the impact? Tanev was a human cruise missile last season, launching his body for 278 official hits. He also knows how to get in shooting lanes, blocking 81 of them last year The Pens signed him to a big deal because they love his energy, speed, aggression, physicality. So how much of that does he bring? Tanev figures to leave a mark, literally, on the Pens’ bottom-six forward group and it will be interesting to see just how much his attitude and playing style rubs off on his new teammates.