It’s not exactly breaking into new territory, but predictions are always fun this time of year. Throw out some bold stances or ideas, most of which probably won’t come true or go a completely different direction, but hey, no one really remembers that. Usually packaged around a nice even number of 5 or 10.
Here’s what 2021 could hold for the Penguins, in no particular order.
#1: Todd Reirden won’t really fix the power play
The Pens’ power play has slid from being ranked 1st in the NHL in 2017-18 to 5th in 2018-19 to just 16th in 2019-20. An offensive-driven, star-powered team like Pittsburgh can’t afford to be middle of the pack on the power play. They need to be scoring goals and fueling the team to wins with what should be their advantage on the man advantage. Lack of power play results, as well as the early playoff exit, is a big reason the Pens moved from assistant coach Mark Recchi and welcomed back Todd Reirden. Reirden himself coached a #1 Pens’ power play in 2013-14, the last year he was in Pittsburgh.
But the team’s major issues aren’t coaching, and they aren’t strategy. They aren’t even really zone entries or setting up personnel once entries are secured. The problems are mostly all player-based and execution related. This will be magnified with the trade of net-front presence Patric Hornqvist, whose presence will be missed in this department.
Pittsburgh won’t necessarily have a BAD power play, but it will be closer to the 2019-20 version (16th) than the 2017-18 version (1st).
#2: Pens will make the playoffs
This actually feels like a somewhat bold prediction, being as 2020-21 will be division games only, and the NHL’s Eastern division figures to be very strong indeed with the Pens joining notables of Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, New York Rangers and Islanders. Of the six teams mentioned in the last sentence, at least two won’t make the playoffs this season. Five of these teams (BOS, WSH, PHI, PIT, NYI) were in the top 11 of the NHL last season in points %.
And there are only 56 games, leaving much less runaway to overcome a poor start. The Pens start with two games a piece against the Flyers, Capitals, Rangers and Bruins in the month of January (plus one more against NYR on the month’s last game). The Pens will win a nice six of the first nine games and set a course for the post-season from the start.
#3: Cody Ceci, not Mike Matheson, will be the successful defensive reclamation project
This seems like a hot take, but really it’s more just a simple a function of expectations. Cody Ceci has a very low bar to clear here, if he is better than the departed Jack Johnson (himself one of the worst, if not THE worst player in the league the last few seasons) then is some realms it will be reasonable to consider Ceci a relative success.
As Pension Plan Puppets noted, Ceci actually wasn’t too bad for Toronto last season, the main issue was Tyson Barrie played his way down the lineup — forcing Ceci into playing a bigger role than he was capable of. With Kris Letang and John Marino firmly entrenched to do the heavy lifting on the right side of the Pens’ defense, Ceci shouldn’t have that problem in Pittsburgh.
Now, that isn’t to say Ceci will be that great or suddenly turn into a solid NHL player. But if he can be hidden and sheltered away, he might be able to clear the lowest of bars of expectation and not be considered a failure. On a one year contract for just over a million dollars, there shouldn’t be too much sleep lost over his play.
That’s a luxury Matheson won’t have as the Pens’ second highest paid defenseman for a whopping six more seasons. Further, probably no player on the team could have used a normal month-long training camp and slate of exhibition games to adjust his game and style of play more than Matheson. Instead, he gets one week of practices. The acclimation process for his style and working out some of the issues of Matheson’s game will take a little longer.
In hockey, as in life, it’s always better to promise very little, that way any contribution ends up appearing to be a bonus. That fits a lot better for Ceci than it does Matheson at this point.
#4: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will hit more milestones
This is an easy prediction to make, because at this stage of their careers it’s almost always going to contain more notable accomplishments. Crosby sits 16 games away from 1,000 played in his NHL career and 37 points away from 1,300. Malkin is 24 points away from 1,100 and 40 assists shy of the 700 mark. The stars will hit all of these metrics. This isn’t a bold one — but still worth pointing out, noticing and celebrating once they get there.
#5: Jared McCann or Teddy Blueger will be the Seattle expansion pick out of Pittsburgh
With the way the Pens are set up, it looks pretty clear that their 2021 expansion loss to the Seattle Kraken will be a forward. Seattle is in a good spot here to sit back, see who Pittsburgh can’t protect between McCann and Blueger and then take that player who will be somewhat young and relatively inexpensive. It’s a no-brainer for them.
#6: Jason Zucker cements himself as a key cog
Zucker fit in exceptionally well in his short time Pittsburgh. His speed and skill are readily apparent and he played strong with Crosby in the regular season and also on Malkin’s line as one of the very few individual bright spots in the disaster of the Pens’ 2020 playoff bubble experience. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s right there with Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel as the team’s leading goal scorer this season.
#7: The answer to the Pens’ third line is....Kasperi Kapanen
While he was brought in a top-six scorer, Kapanen will find more success and a better fit ending up with McCann on the third line. And while that might seem like a disappointment considering Kapanen’s trade cost of a first round pick, it will actually be helpful and a benefit of the team to establish a fast and skilled lower line and give the team a lot more balance. A lot of focus goes to the center spot, but the Pens will find the real answer is just having two speedy players capable of scoring 20 goals (in a normal 82 game season) like McCann and Kapanen will boost the overall skill that they’ve been missing from non-Crosby and Malkin lines.
This development with Kapanen will shape the Pens’ trade deadline strategy, as they will have to look yet again to the trade market to find the third wheel for Crosby and Guentzel. It might not be a star and more of a passenger role, but Rutherford’s task will have to be to find the 2021 version of the 2009 Bill Guerin veteran type that he can acquire for his second round pick in order to make this team balanced and dangerous for the stretch run.