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Looking back on our 2019-20 Penguins preseason predictions

Some good...Some bad...Some yikes

NHL: FEB 22 Sabres at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back last August I made five predictions. It’s only fair to look back at them now that the 2019-20 season is over and see how they went.

#1 Matt Murray, Vezina finalist

Go big or go home, right? Murray was one of the league’s best from December 15th on last season.


This one didn’t turn out. The Vezina finalists haven’t yet been announced, but Murray had the worst year of his career in terms of save percentage (.899%), Quality Start% (42.1%) and Goals Saved Above Average (-11.60). A dreadful November and December totally derailed his year, even though the Penguins still expect him to be the number one goalie come playoff time.

In a contract year, it wasn’t the worst idea to hope Murray would revert to 2016 or 2017 form — though a bit hopeful and bold to anoint him as a goalie of the year finalist. Murray fell way short of that, and as a result the Pens’ goalie situation remains as up in the air as it has ever been in the last 15 years.

#2 Malkin’s awaited “bounce back” season will be somewhat unsatisfying

This one stings to say, but time comes for us all. Evgeni Malkin is now 33 years old. He’s not quite the player he once was. While it’s easy to see him having a more fulfilling and better 2019-20 than he did in 2018-19 (it would be difficult to have a worse one), it’s going to be a measured improvement. The days of scoring 50 goals or winning scoring titles are likely over for Malkin.

It’s tough to bet against greatness and Malkin might prove to be fully motivated to demonstrate why he truly is one of the best players of this generation from an organization that wasn’t fully publicly committed to him this summer.

There’s also the availability issue being as Malkin has played: 68, 78, 62, 57 and 69 games in the last five years. It’s tough to have a really transcendent type of bounce back and play to full potential (which is vast!) when missing 10-20 games most seasons. Players don’t get healthier as they get older.

So we’ll go a round prediction of 65 games, 30 goals, 40 assists for Malkin. A great year for most of the league, but just more of a “meh” for Geno.

This one gets some right and wrong points. Malkin “only” scored 25G+49A for 74 points in the 2019-20 regular season, which isn’t too far from the overall prediction. Malkin also got injured and missed a few weeks on a freak injury in just the second game of the season, which also played to the availability portion of the prediction.

However, what was missed was the spirit of the prediction. Malkin finished 5th in the NHL in points/game in the season with an impressive 1.35 mark. His 5v5 points/60 at 3.43 led the league. Malkin played the bulk of the season, and was very, very good for it too. He defied his age, and DID “bounce back” from a disappointing and disjointed 2018-19 season.

Kudos to him, he probably did exceed reasonable expectations — but an injury still meant finishing 14th in the league in scoring. It wasn’t a total, return to the trophy stand season for Malkin. He played really well and did perform better than a lot of expectations though.

#3 Gudbranson regresses hard

Erik Gudbranson truly made a good impression in Pittsburgh. What was a train-wreck of a defender in Vancouver and Florida actually, and instantly, became a passable third player player. Limited in skill and moving the puck but able to surprisingly suppress chances and goals against.

2019-20 won’t be so kind. Gudbranson will revert back towards old form. It seems easy to predict being as initial signs are the team wants Marcus Pettersson to grow into a second pair player (and they should he was great!). But this leaves Gudbranson in the lurch, who will prop him up? Juuso Riikola? Nope, not based on his play. Jack Jhahahaha ok can’t even say that and let’s not think about it until we have to.

Gudbranson may not be one of the truly worst defenders in the league, but his past performance says it is a real possibility. What he won’t be is coming anywhere close to the metrics he put up in his short stint in Pittsburgh last year — a 54.7% Corsi For%, 1.51 GA/60, 58.4% Scoring Chances For%, 52.9 Goals For%.

This ended up hitting the mark. Gudbranson in his strong small sample in 2018-19 with the Pens was too good to be true. Because it was too good to be true.

After playing the first three regular season games of the season, Gudbranson was a healthy scratch for four out of the next five games, as the team looked to integrate in the more talented John Marino into the lineup.

Gudbranson would play seven games with the Pens in 2019-20, with a 48.30% Corsi (a far cry from his 54.7% Corsi in 20 games the year prior) before getting traded almost literally for nothing to Anaheim on October 25th, so that the team would have the cap space to activate Bryan Rust from long term injury reserve.

Gudbranson would go onto play 44 games with the Ducks, recording a 45.8% Goals For%, a 46.3% xGF%, and scoring chance+high danger scoring chance marks in the 47-48% range. As predicted last summer, he crashed back to earth from the oasis in the desert that was his short 2018-19 stint in Pittsburgh....The Pens were just exceptionally lucky to sidestep the trouble and dump him without bringing back any salary at all.

#4 A young forward shines in a big way

With Phil Kessel gone, it’s going to be someone’s turn to step up. Whether that’s Alex Galchenyuk, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun or even Dominik Simon, the Pens are going to have a young winger who does better than expected.

And by that I mean 40+ points (or 55+ in Galchenyuk’s case).

Now all of them can’t score that much, only so many points to go around, but I think there’s a player out there who will catch lightning in a bottle and get a chance to really make the most of it.

Identifying who that will be is a challenge, because there are a ton of candidates for the Pens this year. Sort of exciting to have a lot of unsettled spots on the team, but no shortage of players to vie for the spots.

To be bold and make a call, this will be the year Simon puts it together and not only tips the ice in the Pens’ favor, but starts to get some points out of it too. Not saying he’s scoring 25+ or going to be an All-Star or the next Jake Guentzel, but by the end of the year watch him have about 15 goals, 28 assists and a firm grip on an important roster spot.

While Galchenyuk crashed and burned spectacularly, and my prediction of Simon scoring 15 goals (lol he had 7 in 64 games) was also wrong, the idea was right.

For all the “HBK” bluster and happy memories, Phil Kessel was Malkin’s right winger in 2017 for the second Stanley Cup in a row. He maintained that position mostly until he exited last summer.

With Kessel’s departure, a (somewhat) young forward did step up and shine in a big way...It just wasn’t one that I saw coming. It ended up being Bryan Rust.

Rust led the team in goals this season, and obliterated his personal career-best marks in goals, assists, and points. He did it at 27, which isn’t exactly “young” as the prediction stated, but with only 253 career NHL games coming into this season (just over three full seasons), that feels close enough to put in the win column for a guy stepping up and becoming a full-fledged star.

#5 Pens make the playoffs

Maybe at this point 13 years in a row of making the playoffs that it’s inertia. A body in motion will stay in motion and all that. So our prediction is the Pens will get to the playoffs again next spring.

The division is improved and interesting. However, while the upgrades and new faces are spurring a lot of optimism right now, there’s still some questionable areas if you look for them for just about every team.

The Devils have real questions in net. Ditto everyone’s new darling upstart team in Carolina — Petr Mrazek is notoriously streaky and asking James Reimer to replace a sneakily good year from Curtis McElhinney feels like very a overlooked and wishful major issue at this point.

The Islanders lost Robin Lehner and still don’t have a lot of appreciable offensive threats. They have good team defense, effort, buy-in and coaching — but also a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Philadelphia and the Rangers both are mish-mashed pieces of youth and talent, neither fully rebuilding, nor fully ready to contend with a philosophy stuck somewhere in the middle. That’s usually not a good sign.

Columbus went all in last year and busted when Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky skated away in free agency, they have no business being players this season. (Doesn’t mean they can’t be, just means it shouldn’t be expected).

Pittsburgh has a better roster talent, depth, coaching, goalie combination than these teams right now. Could any finish above them? Sure it’s a league of parity and practically anything could happen in the NHL today. 12 months ago no one was calling for the Islanders to make the playoffs and they did.

But until something changes, pick Washington and the Penguins to finish at the top of the Metro. Both should be locks to make the playoffs in 2020 in a competitive division.

Pittsburgh was on a 97-99% path by the odds to making the playoffs when the season ended. The surprise of the above would be Philadelphia making strides to finish second in the division, and also Columbus to way exceed expectations. Washington was a good regular season team, as expected. I didn’t like the Devils, and they weren’t very good. Carolina and NYI were mostly uneven and imperfect teams, as expected.

No one could have anticipated all the injuries that the Pens endured, but they did endure and rallied around coach Mike Sullivan and some great performances this year by guys like Malkin, Rust, Marino, Tristan Jarry early in the year and Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby while they were available. That turned to make an easy playoff team for Pittsburgh yet again.