Some random late night/early morning thoughts on the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins season.
This is a brutal division and a tough schedule
There is still a lot we do not know about the season and what it will look like, but it does seem likely that the schedule will be limited to only divisional games.
It also seems the Penguins have drawn what looks to be the toughest division in the league from top to bottom on paper. The two weakest teams in the division a year ago were the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, and both have made significant upgrades to their roster this offseason in key areas (Buffalo added Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Cody Eakin; New Jersey fixed its goaltending and had a strong offseason in general). There are no cakewalks here anywhere.
Looking at the 2019-20 results, the Penguins had the fourth-best record out of this group trailing the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers. Assuming those same records had played out in the same format, it would have given the Penguins a First Round matchup against the Bruins. Tough draw for a team that finished with a top-10 record in the league.
But there is another element at play here if they only play games within the division. That element is that the Penguins struggled with all of these teams a year ago, posting only a 8-8-3 against that group in 19 games. Only five of those eight wins came in regulation.
Now, how will that all carry over to a new season with new rosters? Tough to say, but it is at the very least concerning.
The good news there is really only one team that I am comfortable saying is without question better than the Penguins. That team is Boston.
Washington might be as well, but it is close, and I think there is an argument to be made that is a toss-up.
I am still confident in saying the Penguins are better than the Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Sabres.
That would mean two playoff spots would come down to the the Penguins, Flyers, and Islanders. It would be difficult to argue that any one of those teams is clearly better than the other. They all have their strengths, they all have their flaws, and they all have their share of unanswered questions. It is going to be a fight for those four playoff spots and it is very possible, if not likely, that a very good team is going to miss the playoffs here.
The goaltending is still a big unknown
It still comes down to that lack of experience.
Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are absolutely capable of handling the position. They could be good. But we simply do not know.
We already looked at how this is the least experienced goalie duo the Penguins have opened the season with in more than a decade-and-a-half, and it is going to be one of the least experienced goalie duos in the league.
The only goalie duos with less NHL experience at the start of the season are going to be Washington (assuming they do not bring in a veteran to replace Henrik Lundqvist), Chicago, New York Rangers, and Columbus.
Jarry had an amazing first half a year ago with a .938 save percentage through the end of December. That earned him a spot in the All-Star game. But so far that stretch is an outlier in what is a very limited career. He has only a .904 save percentage for his career outside of that initial three-month stretch a year ago. Which goalie is the real Jarry? Or is it somewhere in the middle?
DeSmith has solid NHL numbers but he has not played a game in the NHL since the 2018-19 season and is coming off a very mediocre season in the American Hockey League.
This position will go a long way toward determining what the Penguins can do this season.
Scoring beyond the top two lines
You want to win the Stanley Cup, or at least get close to it, you need to have three or four lines that can contribute offensively.
Do the Penguins have that right now?
The top-six looks great. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are going to carry those lines. Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, and Kasperi Kapanen give them really good winger options for the top-two lines.
But there is going to come a point where the third and fourth lines are going to have to do enough to win some games offensively.
I love the fourth line defensively with Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese. They are all outstanding defensive players, but they are not going to score much.
Still love Jared McCann’s shot and potential, but he has to show he can carry his own line.
Mark Jankowski needs to rebound from a down year, while Evan Rodriguez and Colton Sceviour do not really provide any secrets. We all know what they can do.
Basically what it comes down to is the Penguins have two top lines and two fourth lines. They need one of the latter groupings to take a big step forward this season, because there are not a lot of trade assets to work with and even less salary cap space to fix it.
Crosby and Malkin are still great, but they are also in their mid 30s and are not going to be carrying the offense the way they did in their primes. Even then the Penguins still needed capable scoring from their third and fourth lines. It is even more important now.