The Pittsburgh Penguins will take to this season with designs on winning it all for the third time in five seasons, but they’ll have to do it without Phil Kessel. The club traded the forward to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and a defence prospect.
“We’ve changed the makeup of our team,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Now it’s training camp and the time where the coach (Mike Sullivan) will have to work hard to put it all together.”
Putting it all together is a matter of figuring out if this hockey club still has what it takes. Head coach Sullivan signed a four-year contract extension in July, with designs on playing a more consistent and competitive brand. That’s going to take work, as there is evidence this group has become somewhat self-satisfied.
Chemistry has been an issue, which loops us back to the Kessel trade. Rumours proliferated as to his ability to mesh with the team, but those theatrics are best left to gossip writers. For Sullivan and Co., the task is getting players like Evgeni Malkin to return to form. The Russian forward had just 72 points last season and was a minus-25.
Any team with Sidney Crosby as part of the roster will be offensively gifted. The 32-year-old from Cole Harbour continues to be among the most elite centres in the league and he’s coming off yet another 100-point season, his sixth. Dude knows how to win faceoffs with aplomb, plus he covers most major categories and will see more exposure with Jake Guentzel.
Malkin is hoping for a return to form now that some, you know, diversions are out of the picture. The 33-year-old is still capable of offensive explosiveness and he was still over a point-per-game player, but it’s no secret last season was an off year – at least in terms of being a defensive burden. Geno’s minus-25 was a career-worst.
Guentzel is one of those cats that should see a pick-up in Kessel’s absence. He put up 40 goals next to Crosby last season, a career-high, and averaged nearly three shots on goal a game. Guentzel also averages one and a half hits a game and habitually carries a high shooting percentage, right around 16.3.
Pittsburgh finished fourth in the Eastern Conference in goal-scoring last season and that went a long way to covering the differential. They met the Islanders in the post-season and fell apart against New York’s tight defence, but Rutherford’s betting harmony is the big issue. If more unity leads to more goals, so much the better.
The Penguins allowed 241 goals against last season, a decent total that put them seventh in the Eastern Conference. They’re geared up to make a few adjustments this season, though, and it remains to be seen how that impacts their D. Adding grit was the purview of Rutherford in the off-season, which meant the acquisition of Brandon Tanev up front.
With a stiffer forecheck, Pittsburgh still looks the same on the back end – even with the exclusion of Olli Maatta. Kris Letang is always among the league’s best, even after he missed 17 games last season. He posted 56 points in 65 games, plus he’s consistent in coverage in most other categories – including hits.
28-year-old Brian Dumoulin had 23 points last season and averaged over 21 minutes of ice time a game. He can probably put up more minutes, especially as part of a shutdown pairing. Justin Schultz saw injuries limit his play and production last season to just 15 points in 29 games, but he’s got the mobility and quarterbacking talent to put up better numbers.
Matt Murray saw a career-high 50 starts last season and he collected 29 wins, three shy of his career-high 32 wins in 47 starts from 2016-2017. The 25-year-old struggled early, with injuries and poor play creating more starts for backup Casey DeSmith. This season, the goal is to cement Murray as the starter – once and for all.
At 6’0, 181 pounds, DeSmith is on the smaller side – especially when compared to Murray’s 6’4 frame. The 28-year-old was a Berwick Academy product before the Wheeling Nailers loaned him to Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. DeSmith’s coupling with Tristan Jarry, another candidate for the Penguins’ crease, was legendary and the rest is history.
Losing Kessel will sting, but the Penguins are hoping improved chemistry will solve their problems. While this approach runs the risk of blaming the departed for all or most of their problems, it’s a gamble Rutherford feels is worth making. The Penguins should still have it in them to return to the post-season. How far they’ll get is anyone’s guess.
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