Are the Penguins going to win the Stanley Cup in 2020?
Let me answer that question with a question: Did anybody predict St. Louis would win the Stanley Cup in 2019? The NHL is wide-open, with salary cap-dictated parity seeming to grow by the year.
But I can predict without hesitation that the Penguins will make the playoffs, and be better this season than last.
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and ’17 largely because of speed, youth and energy. General manager Jim Rutherford has done his best to approximate that by complementing his aging core of stars with those elements. Excluding Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, the opening-night lineup will average just 26 years of age.
By design, the forward lines will each feature at least one exceptional forechecker, namely Teddy Blueger, Jared McCann, Bryan Rust and Brandon Tanev. (That blueprint will be temporarily adjusted while Rust is on long-term injured reserve.) That skating and agility will trickle into the penalty kill.
Despite that injection of speed, the Penguins still need to be more structured. They conceded a shocking number of odd-man breaks last season. Allowing 15 short-handed goals speaks for itself. Pinch less, or smarter. Keep a forward high. Fix that.
Malkin looks set to have a big year after a lethargic 2018-19. Malkin has extensively prepared and considered his shortcomings. Alex Galchenyuk on Malkin’s wing instead of Phil Kessel is a godsend. Malkin will love skating with someone who speaks his language, and to be rid of the varied baggage Kessel packed.
Malkin might not ever get 100 points again. But he might. If he registers 35 goals and 85 points while playing responsibly 5-on-5 and boosting Galchenyuk, that’s plenty.
Galchenyuk was thought to underachieve in Montreal and Arizona. But he’s got the tools, and he has never skated with Malkin before.
The Penguins third line could be a big strength (subject to coach Mike Sullivan’s nonstop juggling, of course). McCann was a relentless bundle of energy after arriving from Florida on Feb. 1. Nick Bjugstad’s production hasn’t often matched his skill. Patric Hornqvist is coming off a down season (18 goals) and, at 32, a power forward’s body is unlikely to allow him to rebound.
But the whole is potentially greater than the sum of the parts. Those three are a very basic fit: A speed merchant, a finesse guy, and a bull in a china shop.
Crosby is predictable: He will be the team’s top player and remain in the discussion for hockey’s best. He will again help Jake Guentzel get 40 goals (or close) and could turn Tanev into a reasonable facsimile of Chris Kunitz. Tanev’s career high is 14 goals. But he has never skated with Crosby before.
Marcus Pettersson improved with frightening acceleration after being acquired from Anaheim on Dec. 3. That enables him to pair with Justin Schultz, giving the Penguins a legit top four. Schultz and Pettersson aren’t quite at the level of Letang and Brian Dumoulin, but come closer than most teams’ No. 2 tandem.
The bottom pair is sketchy, but Erik Gudbranson and Jusso Riikola each do what the other doesn’t. That gives them a chance.
The power play will be good based purely on talent. I like the notion of using Letang on the left half-wall and Schultz up top. Two defensemen on that unit should cut down the short-handed goals. Letang isn’t a classic finisher, but he’s willing to shoot one-timers. Schultz is a pure distributor of the puck.
Matt Murray is 25. At that age, most goaltenders still have another gear to find. Murray needs to stay healthy — not for the sake of increasing his workload, but to maintain consistency. Murray played 50 games last season. Even 55 would be plenty. But Murray can have trouble regaining his form coming off injury.
Murray is quality. He has maddening tendencies, like nights when he can’t seem to close his glove on the puck. But he’s a top-10 goalie, perhaps better.
The national hockey media is fretting the Penguins’ 13-year playoff streak might end, probably because they would secretly like to see that happen.
The improvement of Metropolitan Division teams like New Jersey and the New York Rangers is being wildly overestimated, and the New York Islanders could backslide. Carolina is for real, and Washington is again division favorite.
The Penguins will make the playoffs, likely finishing second in the Metro. It would be great to see (at least) one more best-of-7 series between the Penguins and Capitals. It seemed odd when it didn’t happen last season.