Good almost-autumn to you all! I hope your summer wasn’t too hot, like mine was. If you did make it through the past few months being able to go outside and not sweat buckets, congratulations jerk for living somewhere that stayed temperate.My toddler-exhausted brain and I haven’t written anything post-able in months, so please excuse me if it doesn’t seem up to my typical uninformed and largely-subjective standards. As we are finally approaching the beginning of training camp (next Friday!) I wanted to share my thoughts on the state of the Penguins heading into the 2018-19 NHL season.
In the 2018 Pittsburgh Penguins Postmortem I wrote after the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs in May, I pointed that that the bottom six was a major problem for the Penguins, although that was pretty obvious to anyone who has followed the team for at least the last few seasons. The top six forwards in points on the stat sheet for Pittsburgh were responsible for a full point-per-game more than they had been in the 2016-17 regular season and 0.75 points-per-game more than in 2015-16. This led to substantially less-than-ideal usage for the bottom six and even going so far as to see the bottom line almost completely relegated to the bench in the closing games of the Penguins’ postseason series against the would-be Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. After two years of having three pretty useful lines and one modestly useful line, head coach Mike Sullivan was stuck with two overburdened lines, an underwhelming third line, and effectively nothing else.
Between rest, full health, and the departure/arrival transactions, the Penguins figure to be better off in terms of forward depth this year. Here now is a look at last year’s opening night depth chart (based on time-on-ice) compared to the current projections for this year from RosterResource.com:
Worth mentioning of course are how things changed over the course of the last twelve months: Sheahan, Oleksiak, Brassard, and Johnson have been brought in from outside and Aston-Reese and Sprong have been promoted from within; meanwhile Niemi (thank god), McKegg, Wilson, Reaves, Cole (boo), Kuhnhackl, Sheary, Hunwick, and Rowney have been bade farewell. The question of course, as always, is whether these changes are a net improvement or not. For my money (of which there is none invested) it looks like those bottom two lines are looking better, but the jury is still out on the three most recent promotions, Simon, Aston-Reese, and most notably Sprong, will contribute as they continue to mature.
Also noteworthy is the consistency in the defensive six, at least in terms of offensive production. In 2015-16, the defense totaled 167 points, then increased that number to 177 two years ago before dropping back to 167 points last season. It seems that no matter who is playing in that group, whether Letang or Schultz or Maatta are healthy or not, there hasn’t been much give as far as what the blue-liners have contributed offensively. It is, of course, vitally important what they do defensively, and last year defensively was a cluster for everyone, not just the defensemen.
Finally, we get to the goaltending situation, as settled as it is: Matt Murray is the starter, and whether it is Jarry or DeSmith backing him up, at least we can all rest easy knowing that there is someone capable of stopping pucks to do so. In terms of his peers age-wise, only Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has more wins than Murray in the regular season, but no one comes close to the number of playoff wins as Murray. I’m operating under the assumption that last season was a fluke (health issues and his father’s passing) and getting this season off on the right foot will go a long way towards dispelling any notion that he cannot be held in the same discussion as Vasilevskiy, Anaheim’s Josh Gibson, or Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.
With the Penguins getting some time to fully rest, recover, and heal up for the first time in years, there’s reason to be hopeful about their chances at another Cup. If there is anything to be concerned about, it is the continued aging of the core of talent and their inevitable decline in production versus the hopeful-but-not-assured improvement in production of the young players. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang…they are still quite talented but are all showing signs of slowing down, don’t look now, as they (along with Hornqvist, Brassard, Cullen and Johnson) are all 31 and older. Jake Guentzel has thrust himself into the discussion of the best young players in the League, and Bryan Rust has proven himself to be quite versatile which is slowly becoming a necessity for coaches who need that flexibility in down periods. It’s part of the reason why the team has been slow to bring Daniel Sprong into the fore, but he has made his argument that he needs to be in the NHL this year. Will he be able to demonstrate that he can produce even if only given third or fourth line minutes?
Naturally, there will be more to discuss as training camp gets underway and players move up and down the depth chart. For now though, we can all take heart that hockey is almost back!