As we wait to see just when and how the NHL season kicks into gear this winter — with reports a potential 56 game season starting in mid-January is coming into very early focus, let’s shift our eyes to some of the make or break players.
With all the Penguins’ off-season changes, this team looks very top heavy. There should be two excellent scoring lines and a solid group for the top-four defense. If you know the Pens, you know that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel are going to be as good as their health allows them to be. If they’re able to remain available, they’re all proven to be among the best at their positions.
Beyond them, however, there are some interesting question marks. If these players end up among their respective “best case scenarios”, Pittsburgh ought to be a very strong team. If these players flounder, so too might the team. Here are the players and questions to watch unfold in 2021.
With Matt Murray now traded and Jarry the recipient of a three year contract, there’s no doubt that the Pens have chosen their future in net. Jarry is coming into this year with some reason to believe, yet a lot of unknowns. He only has 57 career NHL regular season starts to his name, including just 33 in the last two seasons.
Jarry was one of the league’s top goalies last season, especially early in the year where before the All-Star break he was 16-8-1 with a .929 save%, 2.16 GAA and three shutouts, which helped him punch a ticket to the All-Star game. From that point on, Jarry faded a bit to the background with a 4-4-0 record and a .898 save% and the team elected to gear up Murray for the stretch run that proved to be interrupted.
Now, for the first time, Jarry is the man. A goalie can make or break a team, and the Pens will look to Jarry to lead them back to glory.
Kapanen is an obvious player to watch in 2021. Pittsburgh gave up the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft to get him back as the player they drafted in the first round in 2014. Through his age 23 season with the Maple Leafs, Kapanen had some up and down moments. He has a 20 goal season under his belt. He’s also searched to find a niche behind more skilled wingers with Toronto.
That won’t be an issue now, as the Pens have already announced intentions to start Kapanen on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel. It remains to be seen about the power play, but Pittsburgh could certainly use a right shot forward with their top group now (though Bryan Rust might be an option there).
In a possible 56 game season, it’s unlikely Kapanen will be a 20 goal scorer, but how he fits in with Crosby and how he fares at even strength will be a huge storyline to track all season long.
Mike Matheson carries a couple of negative things with him as he joins the Pens. One is that he has six years remaining on a contract that carries a $4.875 million cap hit, which given his capabilities and reputation coming in the door makes for a level that is going to be really tough to live up to.
The other big red flag for Matheson on the ice is his penchant to turn the puck over, which he did 54 times officially in 59 games last season for a high rate.
However, the flip side is that there is some good to take with the bad. Matheson is a skilled defenseman who may be guilty of trying to do too much with the puck on his stick. Yet he can also provide some positive aspects as well, and is good at winning pucks back when he invariably gives it away.
The Penguins have traded for Mike Matheson.— The Point (@ThePointHockey) September 24, 2020
Matheson is a great skater who moves the puck well, recovers loose pucks & wins battles at a high rate. Matheson was prone to turnovers last season, turning the puck over on almost 1 of every 5 puck possessions at even-strength. pic.twitter.com/mAhGslnFHU
The intriguing angle here is that Matheson is now in the Pens’ organization. Assistant coach Todd Reirdan is back, and Reirdan worked some magic in his first stint with Pittsburgh defensemen like Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta.
Can the Pens coach up Matheson? In theory it seems simple to instill in him a “less is more” type of strategy. Matheson doesn’t need to skate the puck so much and get himself into trouble. The Pens’ system is one based on d-men moving the puck with their head and hands up to the forwards quickly and letting them do the work.
Matheson can skate well and though he has been inconsistent and battled with confidence issues, he seemingly has the tools to excel, especially in a third pair type of role that should shelter and insulate him.
It’s very, very unlikely when you compare his on-ice contributions to his salary cap hit that Matheson will be a value or good deal, yet he’s also not very old and not without strengths that hopefully can be tapped into. Whether or not that actually happens will be a fascinating aspect to watch.
The Pens’ third line center role is a never-ending storyline of interest and importance. When Pittsburgh has been great, you can always look back to a Jordan Staal or Nick Bonino, or even a Matt Cullen in times of injury that have always stepped up and played well.
Jared McCann wasn’t the answer last season. Prior to that, Derrick Brassard was an unmitigated disaster. The next idea up is Mark Jankowski, signed as a free agent from Calgary. GM Jim Rutherford declared upon the signing that his imagined initial third line would with Jankowski in the middle.
A lot of the reaction to the free agent frenzy was analyzing options. Why didn’t the Pens look towards Alexander Wennberg? Or Mikko Koivu? Or someone else that might be better?
Well, all those better players signed for more than NHL league minimum, like Jankowski did. Be it by budget and design or not, the Pens were shopping in a very different aisle than one of the more premiere options.
So now, the question boils down to: what can the Pens expect out of Jankowski in 2021? Is he the player who scored 17 goals in 2017-18 and 14G+18A in 2018-19? Or the one that got shuffled out of Calgary’s plans by the end of the year and scored just five goals and two assists in 56 regular season games last season?
If you squint a bit and ignore 2019-20, Jankowski kinda resembles Bonino (who scored 15G+24A with Vancouver the season before coming to the Pens). That’s surely what the Pens are banking on and hoping they’re going to get. If Jankowski struggles, he won’t remain in the third line center job for long with McCann, Teddy Blueger and even Evan Rodrigues as some reasonable replacement options that can perform better.
Unfortunately, Jankowski probably actually resembles Riley Sheahan a lot more. Both Sheahan and Jankowski were drafted 21st overall in their respective draft years. They’re both of similar size (6’3, 214 for Sheahan vs. 6’4, 212 for Jankowski). They both join Pittsburgh in their age 26 seasons, after the team that drafted them wasn’t exactly heartbroken to see them go.
Sheahan was just a guy on the team for the Pens, decent in moments, but better served as a fourth liner. Right now that looks like the future for Jankowski too, though the Pens are leaving the door open to be pleasantly surprised and going to give him an opportunity to show more.
But can he? That’s the big question. Especially in a year where trading might be difficult for many reasons, the experiment with Jankowski as 3C means a lot in Pittsburgh. The Pens have a great defensive fourth line to lean on. But they badly need quality depth and a secondary scoring option from their third line. Is Jankowski capable of showing his 2017-19 form and helping there?
It’s a big risk, but in a salary cap world and in a budget-minded world for the Pens now, it’s a risk they feel they can take. How Jankowski plays out will be a fascinating part of this season.