We’ve been living in weird times for a while now, and while the end might, or might not be in sight, there’s not too much going on. The Penguins are starting into week two of “Phase 2” for re-starting the season, with Phase 3 not starting for weeks.
With that in mind, dial your brain back to the end of last summer. The Pens entered 2019-20 trying to put a new and fresh foot forward, they had traded Phil Kessel and were trying to refresh the team. NHL.com created a preview with three key questions. In hindsight, some of them are funny, some of them are kinda sad with how it ended up. But for 10 months ago, in some ways it feels like 10 years ago! So looking back and remembering what the issues or still to be decided items were in the not-so-distant past.
1. Can Matt Murray start fast?
By the end of last season, Murray resembled the goalie who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2016 and again in 2017. That wasn’t the case in October and November, when the 25-year-old’s injuries and early-season struggles led to coach Mike Sullivan giving Casey DeSmith a majority of the starts.
Entering his fifth NHL season, Murray will be counted on to perform like a No. 1 goalie from the moment the season opens.
What we said:
There’s no reason why Murray shouldn’t start fast. A lot is made of his early season struggles last year, but flush that and go back further and Murray was 7-2-1 in October 2017 (albeit with a .903 save% and 3.05 GAA).
The real issue and more pertinent question, as is common for the Penguins, is not really how the goalie will play — it’s how will the TEAM in front of the goalie play?
Time and again we’ve seen Pittsburgh sleepwalk through the first 20-25 games of the season, not really focus on details, and just try to outscore teams. Thus why Murray could be 7-2-1 in October 2017 while giving up 3 goals a game, that tells you there were a lot of goals scored and not a lot of defense being played.
Well, really, it might be surprising but Matt Murray DID start fast. In October 2019 he was 7-3-0 with a .923 save%, a shutout and a 2.20 GAA. If only he could have kept that up, it would have been a very good season for Murray.
Unfortunately, November wasn’t kind to Murray and he bottomed out. He was just 2-2-4 in 10 November starts, with a .867 save%, his worst monthly save% of the season. Murray would only play three games in December, and just four in January, as Tristan Jarry usurped him as the primary goalie for the Pens, and played a lot better in that stretch.
So, to be fair, Murray did start fast, but he totally couldn’t maintain it and lost his job anyways for a long stretch of the season. And he ended up with the worst save% of his five year NHL career.
Moving onto the second question: Can Alex Galchenyuk replace Phil Kessel?
What NHL said:
Replacing Kessel, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes on June 29, likely will be done by committee. But a bulk of the responsibility will fall on Galchenyuk after the 25-year-old forward was acquired in the trade for Kessel, along with defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
Galchenyuk seems destined for one of Pittsburgh’s top two lines, likely playing on either wing with second-line center Evgeni Malkin. After he had 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) last season, his lowest total since he had 31 (13 goals, 18 assists) for the Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14, Galchenyuk likely will produce more playing with Malkin or first-line center Sidney Crosby.
Although Kessel had 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) last season and 92 points (34 goals, 58 assists) in 2017-18, Galchenyuk said he isn’t focused on replacing Kessel’s production. Instead, he wants to make sure he brings the best version of himself to Pittsburgh.
What we said:
It will be fascinating to watch what Alex Galchenyuk can do in Pittsburgh. He’s younger than Kessel, should have fresher legs and is a skilled player.
Yet for all the mostly media-driven talk that Phil Kessel wasn’t that good at 5-on-5 last year, the Thrill stilled recorded 43 5v5 points (15 goals + 28 assists). Ironically Phil had 41 5v5 points in 2017-18 and 37 5v5 points in 2016-17, so it’s almost like lazy sports talk personalities and writers just like bending a narrative they’re stuck on.
Anyways, Galchenyuk’s seven year season high is 36 5v5 points (19g+17a).
While there is a lot of hope that Galchenyuk will flash or flourish and find some great new gear playing with the Pens, the truth of the matter is he pretty much is what he is. For those hoping against hope the Pens haven’t “lost much at 5-on-5”, hope isn’t a very good strategy, but it’s the only one that remains.
...And oh yeah, you lose Kessel who ran the league’s overall #1 power play at 23.0% for the 2015-19 time period he was in Pittsburgh. Good luck replacing that, there’s only one way to go from here.
So it’s not if Galchenyuk can replace what Kessel did in Pittsburgh (even in a “down” season), it’s just how much is the downgrade going to hurt the Penguins.
The downgrade hurt the Penguins big time. Galchenyuk only scored five goals and 17 points in 45 games, mostly in a fourth line role, because he wasn’t good enough to play on a scoring line.
Talent-wise, it’s probably the worst deal Pittsburgh has had since Markus Naslund for Alek Stojanov. (Though the possible development of Pierre-Olivier Joseph could somewhat salvage this one.)
The Pens’ power play went from 1st in the league last season to 19th in 2019-20. While true that they had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel out for significant parts of the season, ya know would have helped mitigate a loss of talent? A power play weapon like Kessel!
One other upside was the emergence of Bryan Rust, who took big strides forward this season and helped stabilize Malkin’s line this year. Still, the mere thought that Galchenyuk could do anything to replace the 174 points Kessel scored in the last two seasons fell ridiculously, comically short.
Last question: Will Evgeni Malkin rebound?
What NHL said:
Malkin said he was disappointed by his performance last season, when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) and was minus-25, the worst rating of his 13-season NHL career.
Late in the season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins became more reliant on Crosby and forward Jake Guentzel to carry the load offensively. Without Malkin contributing consistently, Pittsburgh’s options were limited.
If the Penguins want to get back to contending for a championship this season, they will need Malkin to return to his form from 2017-18, when he had 98 points (42 goals, 56 assists) and was plus-16.
What we said:
An aspect I’ll be curious to see is what is a “bounce back” that so many media members are talking about, that’s pretty open ended. Does he need 40 goals? 100 points? Just to exceed last year’s 72 points and improve on +/-?
With Malkin at age 33, I’m buying in on tempering expecting huge individual greatness out of him as we’ve been accustomed to. I’d be happily surprised if he can dig deep and showcase one more magical year, and it’s not an impossibility.
Boxcar-wise, Malkin didn’t have eye popping numbers. 25 goals. 49 assists. But with the context of a weird injury, and a COVID-shortened year, Big Gene definitely returned to the super-star form, attitude and confidence that had left him in 2018-19. Malkin finished fifth in the league in points/game, and first in the NHL in 5v5 Points/60.
It’s funny to see how the predictions before a season can pan out. Feels like these questions definitely got answered, and in some funny ways. Hockey can be like that.
For fun, I wonder if we look ahead, what’s the 2020-21 questions for the Pens. Aside from the basic and obvious circumstances like “when will the season start” to “will fans be there” and all that which they can’t control.
I think mind would be:
#1: How many games will Crosby and Malkin combine for? Too often, one or both miss big chunks. They’re not getting any younger and older players tend to get dinged up a bit more when shouldering such big burdens. Can the big two stay on the ice?
#2: What will Bryan Rust do for an encore? With 56 points in 55 games, Rust did big things this year, which kinda defied his career path. Can he get a big repeat season going?
#3: What is the goalie situation even going to be by the end of next season? Murray and Tristan Jarry need contracts. Casey DeSmith has shown he can serve as a solid NHL backup, but he could also be trade fodder. Can the Pens somehow hold status quo for one more season? Who starts Game 1 of the 2021 playoffs?