We had a longer than normal “summer” 2020 offseason, and perhaps a longer than anticipated one too for the Penguins. Pittsburgh was eliminated from the bubble after just four postseason games so the offseason stretched from August-January as the hockey world largely sat in limbo, awaiting plans and figuring out how to operate in a pandemic world.
That led to a lot of preseason predictions, like this one from December 31st, 2020. Training camps had yet to open, but roster moves were largely in place. Jim Rutherford was still the general manager. It seems like a long time ago now, even though it was just over four months ago..
#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....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).
This is a mixed review. As of now the Penguins are 5th in the NHL in power play, but were in the mid-20’s back in March. Can we really look back and point to returning coach Todd Reirden as having any real positive, tangible effect on the power play? That was a big talking point from the team and some large media outlets about a boost. And, to be fair, under Reirden the team went from 16th in the league on the PP to 5th this year. That’s an improvement. But was it coaching related?
Jared McCann scored 7 PPG to lead the club, and he wouldn’t have had an expanded role with the top group had Evgeni Malkin not missed 23 games in the middle of the season, where the Pens got most their in-season improvement.
Perhaps Malkin would have been as productive, but perhaps not. He did only score four PPG in 33 games this year. McCann was literally the hottest power play players in the league for a while, scoring five PPG on just eight shots in a stretch from March 25 (soon after Malkin got hurt) to April 5th.
The spirit of the prediction was that Reirden wasn’t going to boost the Pens back into the upper tier in the league, a place they’ve often been in year’s past. That really came to be, it wasn’t the coaching influence of Todd Reirden that seemed to be the driving factor in the Pens’ power play, it was the execution of players like McCann, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
The results of the power play was salvaged by that McCann hot streak, but the process and coaching behind it from breakouts to zone entries to set plays to any new wrinkles weren’t really changed or different as a result of Reirden.
#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
Another W, this seems like an easy prediction to look back on and wonder if it was all that bold. There was a lot of preseason talk about the Flyers making a massive step forward and even some national preseason chatter about Carter Hart getting in the Vezina conversation. Needless to that didn’t happen. Many national “experts” wondered where Pittsburgh would end up this season. Not many expected first place.
#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.
This is a win to start off red hot at 3/3. Look, Matheson was good this year for the Pens, I think you could give him a grade of a B or even a B+ season. But Ceci was better than that, he clearly was the best redemption story on the team. As noted, once the initial gnashing of teeth about signing Ceci subsided (this author included!), the evidence from Ceci playing in Toronto did show signs of being a useful player. However, he exceeded all expectations and took a step forward beyond that. Good for him.
#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.
Well, half credit I suppose. Malkin’s injury robbed him of a chance of hitting 40 assists (he was on pace to do so), but he passed the 1,100 point mark and Crosby got to all of his attainable milestones.
#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.
The jury is still out on this one. That second sentence is still probably true about Seattle getting a forward from PIttsburgh, but it’s still up in the air as to which one it will be. Both McCann and Blueger had excellent seasons. I can’t imagine the Pens expose a 25-year old forward in McCann who can play center or wing, has a reasonable contract for next year and finished fourth on the team in goals to the expansion draft. Teams can protect seven forwards, and now it’s impossible to imagine McCann as the eighth or lesser forward on the team moving forward.
Blueger might be safe, too, perhaps Jason Zucker for salary reasons is in the mix to be left available. Still a lot of time to watch this unfold. Another angle: Jeff Carter scored 17 goals this season and has a reasonable cap hit for next season. Protecting him might be a worthwhile consideration as well, though that doesn’t have to be a focus or priority to decide on right now.
#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...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.
This one, it’s fair to say, was a miss. Zucker was out for a lot of time with what looked like a nasty leg injury. He wasn’t close to regaining his previous 33-goal season, but his goal scoring wasn’t really poor at nine goals in 38 games, just not close to being among the team leaders.
#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.
This was a miss, but was fairly close in terms of the spirit of the prediction, even if the way it was framed didn’t work out. Remember in the summer that Kapanen was brought along with the stated intent to be Crosby’s right wing. That didn’t happen as Crosby and Kapanen didn’t gel and quickly Bryan Rust was moved to the top line, that worked and the team never looked back.
But Kapanen did have a tremendous season and is clearly a top-six forward with the way he produced points. The true key to the third line ended up being found with a trade addition of Jeff Carter and his solid play to stabilize and add depth down the middle.