Over at Sportsnet, former Pensburgh Podcast guest and all around good dude Justin Bourne was asking questions about the teams of the Eastern Conference for the upcoming season. Here was the screed about the Pens.
How can the Penguins get better?
It’s not that they aren’t good, or won’t be good. But they finished seventh in the East last year and their last playoff series win came in 2018. They’re running it back with their core intact, essentially adding Jeff Petry (instead of Mike Matheson) and saying “we were already one of the good teams, if everyone plays a little better we’ve got a chance.” It hasn’t been enough in the past, so they’ll need more from their secondary players. If they’re fully healthy all year, could that be enough to give them more? Or are they trending towards being stuck in the middle?
From a national perspective, this is a fair view to have. The major story of the off-season for the Pens is how little change the team had. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust are back. There weren’t many major losses, with just two of the team’s top-10 scorers from last year (Evan Rodrigues and Mike Matheson) moving on. Both goaltenders are back, the coaching staff is the same, what will be different with a team that has a lot of the same?
It’s a fair question to ask, but the continuity of the Penguins can also be considered a feature and not a bug. This is a team that even if they run into injuries to key players, can be counted on to reliably make the playoffs and be better than half of the conference during the regular season. While other teams rise and fall, the Pens have made 16 straight post-seasons with the Malkin-Letang-Sidney Crosby troika in place as the longest tenured teammates in NHL history. That should be the case again.
In the bigger picture, are the Penguins really dangerous come playoff time? They haven’t been in the past, though injuries and goalie performance has rendered them punchless anyways.
As far as the regular season goes, why could the Penguins out-perform last year? There are a few reasons for optimism, even though this team clearly isn’t built or as talented as a purely elite roster on paper like some other contenders.
1 - Opportunity for added games for top players, and a better start
The Penguins could be healthy this year! Ha ha ha. Ok, now that the fanciful dream is out of the way, there still are reasonable chances for more impact from better players through more games.
Start with Rickard Rakell, who only played 19 games in Pittsburgh last season. That could be multiplied by four this year. Evgeni Malkin isn’t an ironman, but he should be playing in more than 41 games this year. Bryan Rust missed 22 games last season, and Sidney Crosby missed 13 games, mostly at the start of the season. Jake Guentzel missed six contests. Jason Zucker (yeah, yeah) only played 41.
The Penguins, knock on all the wood, are healthier right now than they were 12 months ago when Malkin’s knee and Crosby’s wrist were in shambles. Largely due to all of those absences, they started just 5-6-4 in the first 15 games of the season last year, a dreadful beginning that let’s not forget had some screaming that the end was already here. (It wasn’t, of course).
Pittsburgh should get more games from their stars this year, and they definitely should have a better first 15 games than 5-6-4.
2 - Positive regression and roster changes
Kasperi Kapanen was bad last season, but has a marked career history of fluctuating good and bad performances from year to year. Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn should be better than both showed late in the year, when production was just a rumor for both. Jeff Carter is getting to the point where he might run out of gas again late in the year, but has the ability to play better than he did as well.
A large chunk of last year’s bottom six won’t be around and could conceivably be improved upon, considering that Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese and Brian Boyle combined for 173 total games last season. Players like Josh Archibald, Drew O’Connor and Ryan Poehling aren’t likely to drastically out-perform that level of play, but could provide an extra gear and raise the tide of team a little bit.
3 - Power play uptick should be expected
The Pittsburgh power play only finished 19th last season in the NHL, at 20.2%. Prior to that, the Pens possessed a top five PP in four of the last five years dating from 2016-21 (with only an aberration of 2018-19 missing the list). This point ties into the top aspect above, where for many games last year the Pens only had three of their top five weapons in the game at the same time. Especially on the power play it’s impossible to make up for the skill drop when a team is missing players like Crosby and Malkin compared to when they are available.
If all the top players are around more, the power play will be better than 19th next season. That means more goals, which means more wins.
The easiest way to change a team’s fortune in the standings is to go straight to the shootout column of the stats. The fickle nature of a three round skills competition to determine the winner of a hockey game can be fun for fans, but also random and unpredictable.
Pittsburgh only went 3-7 in 10 shootout games last season. This is significant, because 10 games making it to a shootout is an uptick. After years of the excitement of 3v3 overtime, cautious coaching schemes and mentalities have made shootouts more common again.
The Pens’ shooters only ranked 28th in the NHL in shootout shooting percentage with eight goals in 35 tries (22.9%). Some of that is poor player execution and falling confidence, but that number can be a thin line. Improve to 33.3% and a team would rank tied-8th. That’s only four more conversions needed. Pittsburgh has the talent to be better, and should be in the future.
The flip-side is the goalie performance, and the Pens only got a .611 save% (14 goals allowed on 36 attempts) from their goalies. It looked like Tristan Jarry had no business being in shootouts for a while, but then he was able to get on track by the end of the year and make that part of his game a strength.
The Pens’ shooting% plus save% was only .840%, ranking just 29th in the league. That number will bounce around wildly and next season they could be 9th or 19th just as easily, and will end up with more points in the standings as a result, should the trend of games not being decided after 65 minutes continue.
Pittsburgh enters this season perhaps with somewhat of a ceiling for regular season performance — no one really should expect them to be pushing for a Presidents Trophy. At the same time, they are also the league’s most consistent team when it comes to performing solidly and reliably qualifying for the playoffs.
That is likely to continue again this year, and though it may be tough to tell from a general 30,000 foot view, the Pens should have ample opportunity to improve off of their results from last regular season.