Looking back at some stats from last year, some things went really well for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even though many other things went wrong, and they sure get worn out — Evgeni Malkin’s down year, Jack Johnson’s inability to keep pucks out of his own net, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist struggling to score goals in the second half of the year. We all know about that.
But what about some things that may have went better than expected? Can we count on that continuing in 2019-20 and beyond?
In some ways, from a fan perspective, I think one of the toughest aspects to grasp is that performances are not static. These players are human beings. While the very best (think like Sidney Crosby) can reliably be counted on year in and year out to provide extremely consistent excellence, many others are constantly ebbing and flowing. Getting better or getting worse. And the NHL IS the toughest league in the world. Not many usually stay at the top for long and often performances can pop out of nowhere quickly, then fall off quickly.
So from least concerned to more concerned, let’s examine some areas that will be tough to replicate in 2019-20.
#3: Jake Guentzel goal scoring
Jake Guentzel scored 22 goals in 2017-18. It was a short summer (and he did score a league-high 13 goals in just 24 playoff games) but it goes to show that while Guentzel is skilled, and often fed great chances by Crosby, it’s very difficult to score goals at the NHL level.
Then 2018-19 happened and while Guentzel surely had a star turn in the 2017 Stanley Cup winning effort, he really established himself over the long haul in the 2018-19 season with a 40 goal season. Goal scoring was up in the league overall, but not that many players hit that magical 40 mark.
Even more impressive was Guentzel accomplished this largely without regular minutes on the Pens’ star-studded first power play group. Guentzel scored 33 goals at even strength. That’s mammoth. Alex Ovechkin scored 33 goals at ES last year!
So can Guentzel get there again? There shouldn’t be THAT much consternation over it, and he could fall a bit short and still have a really good year. Which, everyone should probably count on a really good season from #59. He’s a star player, but now comes the expectation (especially with the loss of point producer Phil Kessel) that Guentzel will be needed more than ever to come through offensively.
#2: Excellent goaltending
The play of netminders is always nitpicked, especially when goals are scored. It’s often a blame game of whose fault or why couldn’t the goalie stop the shot. And, that is his job.
I also feel like based on the first half of the season there was more angst among the fanbase to really realize or give credit to the overall stellar play that Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith provided over the 2018-19 season.
The Penguins finished fourth overall at 5-on-5 play with a .931 save percentage. You would take that every time if you could. Yet Murray was not very good (and likely playing through injury) in the early part of the season, though he rebounded to be one of the league’s top goalies from mid-December on.
DeSmith also was strong in his first full NHL season, stopping .916% of the shots he saw in 36 games. That’s a great backup performance.
Can both give that again? In theory, sure, they should be capable. Also in a contract year, Murray will be motivated to show that he can put up big numbers and vault himself towards the top of an ever-expanding salary structure of star goalies.
Of course, he’ll have to stay healthy to do so, which has been problematic. DeSmith will also have to be ready at a moments notice to do his job and maybe start a game or two every few weeks, or maybe have to be “the guy” and take a heavier workload when needed.
#1 The Gudbranson situation
Erik Gudbranson had been one of the NHL’s worst defensemen prior to his February acquisition by the Penguins. Then, a pleasantly unexpected turn happened and he played a simple but capable game in Pittsburgh through 18 games.
Then again, it was only 18 games. And we’re talking about a guy whose stat-lines look like this over the last four seasons at 5v5:
- Corsi For%: 46.4%, 48.0%, 43.7%, 43.5%
- Scoring Chances For%: 48.0%, 46.6%, 41.4%, 38.6%
- Goals Against/60: 2.07, 3.12, 2.08, 4.04
Can Gudbranson build upon that with his strong but small Pittsburgh sample (of 54.8%, 58.4%, 1.51 from above)? Will the “change of scene” stick and allow him to turn into a steady player? As seen above, especially with goals against, Gudbranson has swung between “not damaging” and “absolute tire fire”, which again speaks the the variability that NHL players will offer. Not everything is steady.
It remains to be seen if the last 18 games were mirage or a sign of things to come, but surely will be an important small subplot to the Pens’ season in 2019-20.
Another interesting development will be how Gudbranson is used. He fit in very well being partnered with Marcus Pettersson. And Gudbranson leaned on Pettersson a lot, typically just making safe lateral partner passes over to the Swede and allow him to do the heavy lifting of zone exits. The issue here is that Pittsburgh seems primed to sign Pettersson to be more than just a third pair defenseman. They want and expect the young player to grow and provide them with a bigger role.
If Pettersson is upgraded to a second pair with Justin Schultz — which seems likely sooner than later — does that mean perhaps a “sum of all fears” bottom pair with Jack Johnson and Gudbranson? Even if not, then EG is going to play more with Juuso Riikola, who himself struggled at the NHL level in his rookie season last year.
Gudbranson played well in Pittsburgh in his few months there, but his skill-set doesn’t fit the typical archetype of defensemen who have succeeded in coach Mike Sullivan’s system that stresses blueliners with mobility and the ability to make a play with his hands or feet when needed to advance the puck to forwards.
It’s no secret that this type of hand-holding has been a source of tension between talented forwards like the departed Kessel and Evgeni Malkin and the coaching staff. The Penguins aren’t a team that sits back — their transition game is rooted in aggression, exploiting space vertically and thinking offense the second they get control of the puck in their own end. Most of their additions this summer have been based on speed in forwards (Dominik Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Tanev) to lean into that mindset.
How will Gudbranson fare here if he’s without the Pettersson safety blanket? Can Gudbranson gain confidence and demonstrate making simple but vital first plays on the puck?
All of this will be fascinating to watch pan out. The Pens will need and rely on scoring from Guentzel, their goalies to stop shots, and Gudbranson to be at least passable while on the ice. All of these aspects worked out really well in 2018-19. Whether or not they will again in 2019-20 will go a long way to determining if Pittsburgh can extend their playoff streak to a league-high 14th season.