The Penguins expect better than two straight early post-season exits, and so do their fans. Former General Manager Jim Rutherford made plenty of changes; and with them, reasons to be both hopeful the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup. On the contrary, there is plenty of pessimism over another potential first-round exit as well.
Penguins Will Win The Stanley Cup #1: A Return to Speed
MORE OF THIS, PLEASE! pic.twitter.com/Jl57xMw3rm— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 27, 2021
Seasons past saw the Penguins load up on hulking players like Nick Bjugstad, Jack Johnson, and Erik Gudbranson. Last season, the needle began moving back the other way, with Brandon Tanev signing via free agency and Jason Zucker coming via trade. GMJR didn’t stop there. He traded long-time fan favorite Patric Hornqvist to Florida, and burner Kasperi Kapanen was brought in. The Pens won their back-to-back Cups with a mix of speed and skill. Trying to get bigger and meaner didn’t seem to fit the team identity. Going younger and faster should result in a deeper, more offensively threatening lineup, and another Cup Final trip.
Penguins Will Win The Stanley Cup #2: Crosby and Malkin play like Crosby and Malkin
Fun fact: Evgeni Malkin has 68 points (22G-46A) in 49 career games against the Capitals. pic.twitter.com/5uGtXQIky4— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 20, 2021
The old hockey adage is that “your best players need to be your best players”. They take up the most space on the team’s salary cap, so they need to take up most of the space on the scoresheet. Last season was all over the place for these two. Evgeni Malkin went down early with a lower-body injury, then Crosby was sidelined with a hernia and never fully recovered. The only upside to being eliminated from the playoffs that early is it offers plenty of time to recuperate. We’ve already seen Crosby get off to a stellar start. Malkin isn’t lighting up the scoresheet just yet, but woke up in that second game with Washington. No training camp or pre-season schedule may be to blame for his slow start, but once he gets flowing, it could be a long season for the rest of the East Division.
Penguins Will Win The Stanley Cup #3: Buying in to Team Defense
This very clearly was an issue the past two seasons. There was no support, nor any real interest in backchecking or accounting for open opposing players. Ideally, the addition of youth and speed can address this on two fronts. First, being able to keep up with opposing players in their own defensive end will cut down on the number of defensive breakdowns and easy goals against. Secondly, using that speed to chase down loose pucks and potentially push odd-man rushes will cause the opposing defense to think twice before they pinch, offering easier breakouts and less time spent in the defensive zone. There were some absolutely atrocious periods spent against Washington, I’m chalking that up to the lack of pre-season to iron out the defensive details. Tanev’s tenaciousness is rubbing off on guys, and that sort of buy-in is necessary if Penguins hope to win the Stanley Cup.
They Won’t Win #1: Goaltending
After another questionable-at-best season, Pittsburgh finally cut bait and shipped former cornerstone-to-be goalie Matt Murray to Ottawa. Tristan Jarry usurped Murray and even earned an All-Star nod. The Pens went all in this past offseason, signing Jarry to a three-year $10.5 million contract. All indications are that Jarry can live up to the potential, but the team took that same leap with Murray and jettisoning the beloved Marc-Andre Fleury. In a condensed season like this, a goalie tandem is going to be even more important, so the unproven pair of Jarry and Casey DeSmith will have to step up and steal a game here and there. If not, this season goes south, and fast.
They Won’t #2: Defensive Gambles Fail
Jim Rutherford saw an opportunity and took it. Out are Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, and Justin Schultz. In are Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Are the new guys an upgrade over those sent packing? Yes, if only just barely. The real question is, will it be enough to cover for the ever-present issue of the forwards not being as involved in their defensive end. If the infusion of younger, faster players doesn’t help, this defensive corps might not be a big enough upgrade to pick up the slack.
They Won’t #3: The Injury Bug Bites Again
Last season, the Pens lost almost 300 man-games to injury. It was a minor miracle they even qualified for the post-season restart. With this season being even shorter, losing anything close to that number again and expecting the supporting cast to carry the team would be completely out of the question. As stated above, ideally the long layoff allowed guys like Jake Guentzel and Crosby to completely heal from their surgeries and come back at full strength. If any one of the big four (Guentzel/Crosby/Malkin/Letang) are forced to miss significant time, it could mean the end of their playoff streak.
Where do I see this team ending up? I think the defensive upgrades will be enough. The team speed will be on full display, and be too much for the rest of the East Division. I think the Pens will come in second (to the Caps), and will run into them again in the Conference Final, eventually earning another trip to the Stanley Cup Final.