Things for the Penguins are not exactly at an all-time low, but entering 2021-22, they look worse than they have in many years. Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin are hurt. They have been bounced in the first round in three years in a row. The farm system is still awful, and they had a rough offseason. Are they even playoff favorites?
Offseason additions: F Brock McGinn, F Danton Heinen, F Brian Boyle (PTO), D Taylor Fedun, F Dominik Simon.
Offseason subtractions: F Jared McCann, F Brandon Tanev, D Cody Ceci, F Frederick Gaudreau, F Colton Sceviour, F Mark Jankowski.
If lucky, Crosby could only miss about a week or two of the season. The franchise cornerstone since day one, Crosby had another stellar season in 2020-21, as he finished fourth in Hart voting. In 55 games, Crosby scored 24 goals with 62 points. His defense has improved over the years, to the point where he is now a well above-average player in his own end. So, you can still pencil Crosby in the projected lines. Malkin? Not so much. After another injury-riddled season, Malkin had knee surgery, which will cost him about two months. With Malkin and Crosby out to start, the Penguins will have some serious center problems. They will be alleviated a bit by Jeff Carter, the veteran center who went on a crazy shooting streak after a midseason trade from Los Angeles. Carter scored on 24.3 percent of his shots in his 14 regular season games with Pittsburgh, for nine goals. He added four more in six playoff games. Jake Guentzel had a great regular season, but after another dud of a playoffs, the pressure is mounting. Crosby’s number one wing scored 23 goals with 57 points in 56 games last year, but he had just a goal and an assist in the postseason. This isn’t to say that Guentzel has never been a playoff performer. He led the team with 13 playoff goals as a rookie en route to a Stanley Cup in 2017. The next year, he scored 10 goals in 12 games. A similar thing could be said about Bryan Rust, who was overall underwhelming on the top line in the loss versus the Islanders. While he was not quite the point-per-game player he was in 2019-20, Rust was still good. He scored 22 goals with 20 assists for 42 points. It looked like Jason Zucker’s time in Pittsburgh was coming to an end after an unproductive year, but alas, he is still a Penguin. A prolific scorer and King Clancy winner in Minnesota, Zucker’s first full year with the Penguins was rough. He scored just nine times with an equal amount of assists. He gave bottom-six production for a guy who previously had scored at least 20 goals in four consecutive seasons. The silver lining is that in just 38 games, those nine goals are a pace of 19. Kasperi Kapanen’s first year with Pittsburgh was overall successful, seven years after the team drafted him in the first round. An absolute demon off the rush, Kapanen used his great speed to have 30 points in 40 games, 11 of which were goals. He played all over the Penguins’ lineup. Danton Heinen scored 16 goals with 47 points in his first full NHL season of 2017-18, but it has been all downhill since. While he was still effective as a third liner with the Bruins, Heinen really fell off with the Ducks last year. He scored just seven goals with seven assists in 43 games. He comes to Pittsburgh looking for redemption. Evan Rodrigues had the same amount of goals and assists as Heinen last year, but in 35 games. He started the year playing with Crosby but he was injured for a decent amount of time. Rodrigues played in the first two playoff games but was healthy scratched for the rest after Malkin came back from injury. Radim Zohorna, an undrafted Czech native who has a fake sounding name, had a big 2020-21. It started with 12 goals and 10 assists in 21 games in his home country. Zohorna had 11 points in 12 AHL games, and even played in eight games for the big club. In those eight, he scored twice with two assists. That is a good first impression, which will help him as he fights for a spot this year. The Penguins actually have a much better fourth line than third, even after losing Brandon Tanev to Seattle. Zach Aston-Reese has developed into an elite defensive bottom-six winger. Among Penguins with at least 400 minutes on ice last year, “ZAR”‘s 1.5 GA/60 was the best. He added nine goals with six assists as well. Aston-Reese was tied with Teddy Blueger with a 1.93 xGA/60, the best among Penguins under the same ice-time parameters. He matched his 22 points from the season before, in 26 less games. Joining them in place of Tanev will be Brock McGinn, who was signed to a four-year deal. If that seems like a lot for a bottom-six winger, that’s because it is. But, they did originally get Tanev on a six-year contract. McGinn scored eight times with 44 hits in 37 games for the Hurricanes in his sixth and final season in Carolina. Veteran center Brian Boyle is now a Penguin, as he’s in camp on a professional tryout. The six-foot-six Boyle last played in 2019-20 as a member of the Panthers. Then, he had 15 points with 34 blocks and 65 hits in 39 games. Returning to Pittsburgh is Dominik Simon, the winger who scored 19 goals with 43 assists in 168 games for the team over the three seasons prior to 2020-21. He spent last year with the Flames, where he didn’t get on the scoresheet in 11 contests.
Just like Malkin, Kris Letang is entering the final season on his contract. There doesn’t seem like a way where he leaves, but it is still a situation to monitor. He is not the two-way defender that he was in his prime, but Letang is still an offensive threat. He had 38 assists plus seven goals for 45 points in 55 games last year while averaging nearly 25 minutes on ice a night. Fifteen of Letang’s points were on the power play, as he finished ninth in Norris voting. His steady partner, Brian Dumoulin, is now entering his seventh season already as a Penguins regular. The defensive half of the Pittsburgh top pair had 14 points in 41 games last year, with 55 blocked shots and 63 shots. Dumoulin has been limited by injuries over the past two seasons, only playing in a combined 69 regular season games. John Marino had a surprisingly great rookie season in 2019-20, but he regressed in year two. Marino is known for his defensive abilities, so it is not like his 13 points in 52 games is a concern. The most alarming number for Marino was a drop from a 54.5 xGF% to a 47.9. The Penguins reportedly shopped Marcus Pettersson, but nothing came of it. Pettersson did have a solid 51.5 xGF%, which is better than any of the aforementioned defensemen. The slim left-hander had just nine points last season. The argument for dealing Pettersson was that the Penguins also have a great skating lefty in Mike Matheson behind him. His first season in Pittsburgh was not half bad, as he had 16 points in 44 games. Matheson is not the strongest defender, but playing less than 19 minutes a night like he did last year with his offensive ability, the trade-off can be worth it. The question is regarding his partner. With no big addition coming in and Cody Ceci leaving for Edmonton, veteran Chad Ruhwedel could start. The 31-year-old San Diego native has been a great plug-and-play option for the Penguins over the past five seasons. He got into 17 games last year, with two assists, 13 blocks, and 32 hits. Mark Friedman had nine hits, two goals, and an assist in five games after being claimed off waivers last year from Philadelphia. He only average eleven minutes a night on ice, which is about as low as it can get for a defender. 2017 first-round pick Pierre-Olivier Joseph debuted last year, with five points in 16 games. For him to start, he would have to potentially play on his off-side. There is still a great possibility that he is a starter by the end of the year.
Tristan Jarry was so bad in the playoffs, that he single-handedly threw the series and raised questions on whether he should be back for 2021-22. Jarry had an all-star caliber 2019-20 while splitting time with Matt Murray, but when hand the starting job, he had just a .909 save percentage in 39 games. That is concerning, but he still had an above-average GSAA of 1.3. But he was on another level against the Islanders, and not in a good way. Jarry started every game, with a percentage of .888 and a 3.18 GAA. He allowed several costly goals, most notably passing the game five overtime winner to Josh Bailey on a silver platter. The reason why Jarry had to play every game is because Casey DeSmith was injured. DeSmith was the better regular season goalie despite only getting 20 games of the workload. He had a .912 save percentage with a 2.54 GAA and a 2.0 GSAA.
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker – Jeff Carter – Kasperi Kapanen
Radim Zohorna – Evan Rodrigues – Danton Heinen
Zach Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger – Brock McGinn
Extras: Dominik Simon, Brian Boyle
Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson – John Marino
Mike Matheson – Chad Ruhwedel
Extras: Mark Friedman, Pierre-Olivier Joseph
The Penguins do not look all that good right now. There are a ton of major question marks with this team, especially with Malkin out. The center depth behind Crosby is bad, with Carter primed for regression. The third line may not be an effective fourth line. Is Matheson’s partner, whoever may that be, going to be good enough to play daily? And of course, the goaltending problem. This Penguins team is very flawed. In a rough division, that may not be able to play. It seems harsh, but I don’t see this team in the playoffs as of now.