Last week we checked on three concerns for 2019-20 for the Penguins as far as regression. To repeat, it’s important to note this is not a prediction or a guarantee to project the future. Performances can ebb and flow, but usually play will level off as true talent level dictates.
Here’s some aspects to consider seeing how much replication can happen next season in 2020-21.
#1 Bryan Rust, point per game player
After scoring a total of 55 goals in the first 253 games played in the NHL (.22 goals/game) from 2015-19, Bryan Rust exploded in 2019-20, scoring 27 goals in 55 games (.49 goals/game). His points took a similar number recording 56 points in 55 games in 2019-20 (1.02 points/game), up from 114 points in those first 253 games (.45 points/game).
This is a big, huge jump into becoming an elite point producer. There are several reasons that show this is no coincidence or fluke and Rust should produce more in 2020-21 than he did from 2015-19.
For one point, Rust played a career-high 19:46 per game last season, he had been a 12-16 minute player previously. Along with these new minutes has been a permanent role with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the two highest point producers per game of this generation.
Rust’s role has changed on the power play too. Rust only recorded a total of two PPG and five PPP in his whole career before 2019-20, usually just playing mop up duties and throwaway power play minutes. That changed in a major way, Rust played 2:48 per game on the power play last season, and due to rotating injuries to Crosby (out mid-November to February) and Jake Guentzel (out January - end of season), Rust was able to be on the top power play group his whole season.
Though the Pens have traded Patric Hornqvist, Rust’s spot on PP1 right now is unknown, especially if the team is at full-strength. Crosby, Malkin and Guentzel are no doubt players for that group, and Kris Letang is as well. That leaves one spot open, which could be for Rust. Or it could be held by offensive-defenseman Mike Matheson, or Jason Zucker, or maybe even Kasperi Kapanen. Or the Pens might seek to add a player still who could slot in here.
There is another red flag for Rust’s production as well. From 2015-19, he was a career 10.7% shooter. In 2019-20 that popped to a 17.9%, the 14th highest shooting percentage mark in the whole league last season. Playing with Crosby or Malkin is a reasonable bet to shoot above average, but remember that overall league average was 9.0% last year (with goalies stopping .910% across the league).
Rust shoots better than league average because he doesn’t take many of the long-range, low danger shots, but can he replicate 14th best shooting in the league again? Rust was on pace in a full 82 game season for a 40+ goal and 83 point season. That’s a really high bar to meet on a given year. He should score a lot more than the 19 goal season pace he was on (over 82 game rates) from 2016-19, but a 40 goal mark would be tough to approach, especially depending on where he ends up with the power play.
#2 The follow-up to Evgeni Malkin’s bounce back
A much talked about story in 2019-20 was how Evgeni Malkin would respond to a rotten (for him) 2018-19. Malkin “only” recorded 72 points in 68 games, but had one of his worst seasons in advanced metrics, it was the first year at 5v5 where the Pens got out-scored with Malkin on the ice (2.83 GA/60 vs. only 2.72 GF/60). It was the first time since 2010-11 since this had happened.
Questions about Malkin’s aging and ability to be a premiere player existed in summer 2019, with the GM famously not commit to Malkin as an untouchable core piece of the team.
2019-20 was a great bounce-back for Malkin. He scored three more points than the previous season, in 13 less games. The Pens’ GF/60 with Malkin on the ice jumped from 2.72 up to the stratosphere of 4.02. The defensive-side, ironically, was more lax than the year before at 2.98, but Malkin out-scored any issues.
Geno’s 3.43 P/60 at 5v5 led the league (minimum 700 minutes). For an age-33 season, that’s an absolutely elite season that only a fluke injury early in the regular season cost him the opportunity to make MVP headway.
From the top of the mountain, there’s only one way to go. Malkin is now 34, a little older and losing ever-so-much skill in a league that continually only gets younger and faster around him, bit by bit.
However, there are some positive signs as well. The Pens have added Zucker and Kapanen in recent months. And no matter how they setup their lines, those two wingers added with Rust and Guentzel give the centers in Malkin and Crosby the best and deepest total collection of talent in the top-six that there arguably has even been in the 87/71 era.
Aside from just the offensive production, it’ll be interesting to see if Malkin can help cut the goals against while he’s on the ice.
#3 Looking for power play improvement
The Penguins’ finished 16th overall in the league on the power play in 2019-20. Overall, their rate (19.9%) wasn’t terrible, but it was an environment where many of their peers excelled. Pittsburgh didn’t.
This is unacceptable, the Pens are a high-powered, superstar fueled team. It’s true that they had a myriad of injuries which happened in a waterfall fashion (Malkin hurt in the second game, Crosby out with surgery not long after when Malkin got back, Guentzel out before Crosby got back, with Hornqvist and Letang missing a handful of time along the way).
Much of the PP struggles, including going 3-for-17 in the short playoffs, were a big factor as to why assistant coach Mark Recchi was shown the door. In his place, the Pens re-hired Todd Reirden to fill the role of coaching the power play.
The Pittsburgh PP’s finish in the NHL for Reirden’s seasons from 2010-11 to 2013-14? 25th, 5th, 2nd, 1st. It should be noted that outlier first season was the dreadful year that Crosby and Malkin suffered season-ending injuries.
When Reirden left Crosby and Malkin were explosive 20-somethings. Now they’re approaching mid-30’s and being something of elder statesmen in the league, though obviously still key players who rack up a ton of points there.
If the Pens’ power play regains form into a top-10 group in the NHL, chances bode really well that they will sail into a playoff spot. If they again continue to struggle with a middle-of-the-road advantage, buckle up.