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Scott Cullen

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The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2015, but they still had 100 points for the fourth time in the past five years and have made the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Penguins team that should be Cup contenders for as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are performing at a high level.

While it’s fine to be introspective and figure out what went wrong to prevent them from winning a third straight Stanley Cup, the Penguins also don’t need to overreact to the situation. They have a really strong team, led by two of the best centres in the world, and if they get good goaltending, the results could very easily be different.

Knowing that they don’t need to make changes doesn’t mean that the Penguins won’t shake things up. GM Jim Rutherford doesn’t like to stand pat and has plenty of assets to move if he feels like giving the team a different look for next season.

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

Jim Rutherford/Mike Sullivan

HEROES

Evgeni Malkin – The 31-year-old centre had his best season since 2011-2012, leading the team with 42 goals and 98 points. Amazing what can happen when he’s healthy – he played 78 games, his most since 2008-2009 and only the second time in that span that he played more than 70 games.

Phil Kessel – The veteran winger has played in every game over the past eight seasons, and went for a career-high 92 points in 2017-2018.

Sidney Crosby – Even if an 89-point season doesn’t necessarily stand out on the superstar’s career record, that he did it with a career-low 6.1% on-ice shooting percentage indicates that his season was more dominant than the point total would suggest.

ZEROES

Matt Murray – After a couple of nearly perfect seasons, both culminating in Stanley Cup victories, the 24-year-old goaltender hit a bump in the road, with a below-average save percentage, last season.

Matt Hunwick – Effectively brought in as an inexpensive replacement for Ron Hainsey, the veteran defenceman struggled and managed to dress for only 42 games.

Kris Letang – Truth be told, Letang had solid possession stats (55.1 CF%, +4.4 CFRel%) and put up 51 points in 79 games, but he was outscored 77-54 during 5-on-5 play and even landed in trade rumours during the season.

 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Evgeni Malkin 78 42 56 98 52.6 0.3 99.4 65.4 18:59 $9.5M
Phil Kessel 82 34 58 92 50.4 -2.7 99.1 62.9 18:41 $6.8M
Sidney Crosby 82 29 60 89 55.8 5.3 96.9 59.4 20:41 $8.7M
Patric Hornqvist 70 29 20 49 53.6 0.9 98.2 55.7 17:19 $5.3M
Jake Guentzel 82 22 26 48 53.6 1.9 97.6 62.2 16:29 $734K
Derick Brassard 72 21 25 46 50.0 2.4 100.0 53.7 17:44 $3.0M
Carl Hagelin 81 10 21 31 54.2 2.6 99.2 53.2 15:57 $4.0M
Conor Sheary 79 18 12 30 52.0 -0.7 99.1 55.2 13:57 $3.0M
Zach Aston-Reese 16 4 2 6 49.5 -2.0 101.5 38.1 11:23 $925K
 

 

FREE AGENT FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Bryan Rust 69 13 25 38 56.4 6.0 98.0 54.4 16:03 $640K RFA
Riley Sheahan 81 11 21 32 48.9 -4.7 100.1 36.2 14:40 $2.075M RFA
Dominik Simon 33 4 8 12 54.7 2.1 98.4 49.5 11:25 $693K RFA
Tom Kuhnhackl 69 2 6 8 43.8 -9.4 96.9 34.4 10:01 $625K RFA
Carter Rowney 44 2 3 5 47.2 -5.1 90.7 25.0 9:21 $613K UFA
 

A superstar talent, Evgeni Malkin stayed healthy enough to produce superstar results, with his 42 goals and 98 points both ranking fourth in the league. He has averaged at least a point per game in each of the past seven seasons, and even though he turns 32 this summer, there is little reason to suspect that Malkin’s production is slipping.  

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Will Phil Kessel still be part of the Penguins next season?

The most interesting decision the Penguins make this summer may involve Phil Kessel, an enigmatic but wildly talented winger who hasn’t missed a game since 2009-2010 and just had a career-high 92 points, including a league-high 42 points on the power play. For all that production, Kessel has reportedly clashed with head coach Mike Sullivan and it’s possible that could provide the impetus for an off-season trade.

Kessel is a gifted offensive performer, and that alone should create a market for his services, it Pittsburgh is inclined to listen, so the Penguins might be able to recoup significant value for a player who will turn 31 by the time next season starts. The benefit to the Penguins is that they don’t have to move Kessel, by any means, so they can hold out for a deal that offers long-term benefit to the franchise.

Sidney Crosby also turns 31 this summer, and while he was outscored (55-48) during 5-on-5 play last season, that seems to be percentage-driven more than anything. He finished last season with a 96.9 PDO, the first time in his career than he’s finished below 100.5. The odds are, then, that Crosby will have some bounce back in his performance next season, so provided that he continues to drive play the way he has for most of his career, there’s a good chance that Crosby’s production and goal differentials will be at least as good as they were in 2017-2018.

If you’re looking for Patric Hornqvist, the first place to investigate will be right in front of the opposing team’s net. That’s where he sets up shop for tips, deflections, rebounds and whatever else he can do to put the puck in the net. He’s an eight-time 20-goal scorer who had a career-high 15 power play goals last season and landed a five-year contract extension which seems reasonable now, given his significant role in the offence and fit as a complement to Pittsburgh’s playmaking centres, but he’s 31, so Hornqvist had better age well for his production to match the price tag.

In his first full NHL season, 23-year-old Jake Guentzel had a solid season, recording 48 points in 82 games, but then the playoffs started and Guentzel went bananas, again, putting up 21 points in 12 games. He’s a smart and skilled winger who thrives alongside Crosby but, naturally, isn’t as productive when he has to move elsewhere in the lineup.

When the Penguins acquired Derick Brassard from Ottawa, it looked like the kind of move that could push the team over the top in their efforts to win a third straight Stanley Cup. Given his track record, he’s over-qualified for the third centre role that he’s asked to fill in Pittsburgh, but Brassard was injured late in the season and didn’t perform to his typical standards. If he really doesn’t fit with the Penguins, Brassard is easily tradeable with minimal cap hit thanks to the Golden Knights picking up some of his salary, but it probably makes more sense to see what a healthy Brassard can provide from the start next season.

Speedy winger Carl Hagelin is a force on the penalty kill though he’s been a ridiculously low-percentage finisher (5.4 SH%) over the past couple of seasons. Heading into the final year of his contract, Hagelin could be trade bait, but the Penguins could very easily keep rolling him out in the regular top-nine role in which he’s been quite successful for most of his career.

As last season went on, Conor Sheary saw less and less ice time. He still finished with a respectable 18 goals but, for a team looking to make changes, that might include a winger who was demoted to the fourth line and is making $3-million against the cap.

Signed as a free agent out of Northeastern last spring, Zach Aston-Reese has a solid first pro season before having his playoffs ended when Tom Wilson broke his jaw with a hit. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old has some offensive talent and should have an opportunity to play with the Penguins from the start of next season.

If the Penguins don’t move out someone with a significant salary, they may end up needing to unload winger Bryan Rust, a restricted free agent who has proven to be a really valuable complementary piece in the past couple of seasons. The 26-year-old hustles, scores a bit, and is the kind of blue collar performer that the Penguins will probably find a way to keep.

After a miserable time in his last year-plus with Detroit, Riley Sheahan got a fresh start with the Penguins and rebounded to previous form, contributing 32 points and playing 15 minutes per game. He also won a career-best 54.2% of his face-offs.

Dominik Simon got an extended look in the NHL last season, some of which was spent on Sidney Crosby’s wing. That may not be an ideal fit, since he’s not a top-tier offensive performer, but Simon was solid enough that he should have a shot, depending on off-season moves, to make the Penguins lineup next season.

It’s not like there are big expectations place on checking winger Tom Kuhnhackl, but he managed two goals in 69 games last season, so that’s not great, and should leave him on the roster bubble.

Top prospect Daniel Sprong got a cup of coffee with the Penguins last season, but is ticketed for a full-time role after putting up 65 points in 65 AHL games.

The Penguins have the ability to wheel and deal this summer, if they so choose. They could trade for the likes of Max Domi, Max Pacioretty, Jeff Skinner and others, or take a run at free agents like James van Riemsdyk or Rick Nash. Failing that, maybe a disturber like Antoine Roussel would add some bite to the Pittsburgh lineup.

 

RETURNING DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Kris Letang 79 9 42 51 55.1 4.4 95.2 54.6 25:20 $7.25M
Olli Maatta 82 7 22 29 51.8 -0.8 98.7 55.9 18:45 $4.083M
Justin Schultz 63 4 23 27 49.8 -3.1 102.4 54.0 19:31 $5.5M
Brian Dumoulin 80 5 13 18 53.7 2.2 96.7 55.8 20:37 $4.1M
Matt Hunwick 42 4 6 10 48.9 -4.1 98.1 50.4 17:31 $2.25M
Chad Ruhwedel 44 2 3 5 52.9 -1.0 97.7 55.8 15:44 $650K
 

 

FREE AGENT DEFENCEMAN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Jamie Oleksiak 68 5 12 17 50.6 -3.1 99.8 48.1 16:40 $965K RFA
 

Kris Letang presents a complex case. He’s a talented puck-moving defenceman who has finished in the Top 10 of Norris Trophy voting five times. He’s had serious health issues at various times in his career, but played 79 games last season, his most since 2010-2011.

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Kris Letang's name comes up in trade rumours, but it's rare for a defenceman of his pedigree to get traded. 

He also produced 51 points and didn’t allow a lot of high-quality chances when he was on the ice but, as noted above, the Penguins were blitzed when Letang was on the ice at 5-on-5 last season.

It may be as simple as he was victimized by a career-low 95.2 PDO (.888 SV% at 5-on-5), but that’s also the kind of thing that can land significant players on the trade block and that is where Letang finds himself from time to time.

He missed time with a concussion and Justin Schultz was not as effective last season as he had been the year before, at least in terms of shot differentials, where he was on the wrong side of the ledger (the Penguins still outscored opponents 53-38 at 5-on-5 with Schultz on the ice). The 27-year-old is a capable right-shooting, puck-moving defenceman.

After a bad run of injuries in the previous three years, 23-year-old Olli Maatta was healthy last year and tied a career high with 29 points. He stepped up his offensive contributions, averaging 2.00 shots per game after 1.20 shots per game in 2016-2017.

26-year-old Brian Dumoulin has established himself as a safe and steady defensive defenceman who can handle tough assignments. He plays primarily with Letang, and offers a nice complement in style.

Last season certainly didn’t work out well for Matt Hunwick, a 33-year-old who has had some peaks and valleys throughout his career. It’s possible that the Penguins will cut their losses and buy out the last couple of years on his deal, but it’s hardly worth it for a team that doesn’t have great defensive prospects pushing for jobs.

Chad Ruhwedel has been quietly effective in a part-time role for the Penguins over the past two seasons, putting up 15 points in 78 games, with decent shot and goal differentials. For the price, he’s fine value as a seventh defenceman.

Rescued from Dallas, where he was having an awful season, Jamie Oleksiak appeared to be a much better fit in Pittsburgh. He’s not a star, pardon the pun, but he can play a physical game, handle the puck, and capably fill a spot on the third pair.

The Penguins may want another defenceman, particularly if they aren’t inclined to play Hunwick regularly. Presuming that they won’t want to spend big money on a third-pair defenceman, maybe someone like Christian Folin, Alexei Emelin, Brandon Manning or Nick Holden might work.

 

RETURNING GOALTENDERS

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2018-19 CAP
Matt Murray 49 27 16 3 .907 .911 $3.75M
Casey DeSmith 14 6 4 1 .921 .933 $675K
 

 

FREE AGENT GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Tristan Jarry 26 14 6 2 .908 .909 $631K RFA
 

It appeared that Matt Murray was living a charmed life when he joined the Penguins a few years ago, playing really well and winning Stanley Cups in his first two seasons. Last season was a bump in the road. He struggled from the start of the season and it got more difficult when his father died in the middle of the season.

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It was a tough year for Matt Murray.

The 24-year-old has an outstanding track record, so this isn’t a major concern, but the Penguins would be a more formidable team with the above-average starting goaltender than they had previously.

With Murray struggling and missing time, and Marc-Andre Fleury toiling in Vegas, the Penguins had to turn to rookies in net. 26-year-old Casey DeSmith was solid in 14 games, but who knows if he has real staying power at this level? He does have a .919 save percentage in 62 AHL games, so he’s worth a look as the backup.

Long-term projections may be more favourable for 23-year-old Tristan Jarry, who played 26 games in Pittsburgh last season, but he had a .901 save percentage in 16 AHL games last season (.914 save percentage in 94 career AHL Games), so the Penguins could afford to give Jarry more playing time in the AHL.

 

TOP PROSPECTS

 
PLAYER POS. GP G A PTS +/- TEAM (LEAGUE)
Daniel Sprong RW 65 32 33 65 +4 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Tristan Jarry G 16       .901 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Zach Aston-Reese RW 41 9 20 29 +21 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Anthony Angello C 33 13 13 26 +16 Cornell (ECAC)
Lukas Bengtsson D 37 0 15 15 +7 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Teddy Blueger C 70 21 24 45 +16 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Adam Johnson LW 70 11 20 31 +5 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Sam Lafferty RW 31 8 14 22 -10 Brown (ECAC)
Jordy Bellerive C 71 46 46 92 -2 Lethbridge (WHL)
Niclas Almari D 41 4 4 8 +3 HPK (SML)
Kasper Bjorkqvist RW 40 16 7 23 +14 Providence (HE)
Linus Olund C 51 8 15 23 -3 Brynas (SHL)
Andrey Pedan D 52 9 17 26 +19 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Jean-Sebastien Dea C 70 18 32 50 +20 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Juuso Riikola D 59 8 16 24 -9 KalPa (SML)
 

DRAFT

No first-round pick.

FREE AGENCY

The Penguins have approximately $70.2M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 17 players.

NEEDS

One forward, one defenceman

WHAT I SAID THE PENGUINS NEEDED LAST YEAR

Two top-nine forwards, one defenceman, backup goaltender

THEY ADDED

Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick, Casey DeSmith, Tristan Jarry

TRADE MARKET

Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick

 

PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART

LEFT WING CENTRE RIGHT WING
Jake Guentzel Sidney Crosby Daniel Sprong
Max Domi* Evgeni Malkin Patric Hornqvist
Carl Hagelin Derick Brassard Bryan Rust
Antoine Roussel* Riley Sheahan Zach Aston-Reese
Dominik Simon Teddy Blueger Tom Kuhnhackl
Adam Johnson Anthony Angello Jean-Sebastien Dea

 

LEFT DEFENCE RIGHT DEFENCE GOALTENDER
Brian Dumoulin Kris Letang Matt Murray
Olli Maatta Justin Schultz Casey DeSmith
Jamie Oleksiak Christian Folin* Tristan Jarry
Matt Hunwick Chad Ruhwedel  
Juuso Riikola Lukas Bengtsson  

 

Many of the advanced stats used here come from Natural Stat TrickCorsicaHockey Viz, and Hockey Reference.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca