An Early Look at the Penguins


Malkin and Crosby celebrate after scoring a goal. Photo from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Oliver Ferguson and Greg Hillman

The end of September means one thing: the beginning of the NHL season. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, this is a very important year. Last year, the Penguins finished the season with an impressive 44-26-12, with 100 points, but they flopped in the playoffs, getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. The offense, led by a core of seasoned veterans like Sidney Crosby (35G 65A,100PTS), Evgeni Malkin (21G,51A,72 PTS), Phil Kessel (27G,55A,82PTS), and Patric Hornqvist (18G,19A,37 PTS), as well as support from younger future stars like Jake Guentzel and Teddy Blueger. However, the defense struggled. Although they were supported by talented defensemen like Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin, the signing of free agent Jack Johnson and trade for Erik Gudbranson seemed polarizing to some fans. 

The first major move made by the Penguins was trading defenseman Olli Maatta. The Penguins traded Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Dominik Kahun and a fifth round pick in this years NHL Draft, which was subsequently traded to the Arizona Coyotes in the Phil Kessel trade. Maatta was subject to criticism based on his poor performance last season and some preceding seasons. Kahun has been in the NHL since 2014 and is currently 24. He finished last season with 13 goals, 24 assists, and a 10 +/-. Another big move the Pens made in the offseason was trading veteran and fan-favorite forward, Phil Kessel, to the Arizona Coyotes.

Ever since the Penguins acquired Phil Kessel in 2015 from the Toronto Maple Leafs, he has been a major impact player for the Pens. He played a major role in both of their cup wins in 2016 and 2017, leading the team in playoff goals in 2016 with 10 goals. There were numerous rumors in the offseason about potential trades the Penguins were going to make involving Kessel, most notably one with the Minnesota Wild in exchange for forward Jason Zucker. In the end, it was the Arizona Coyotes who closed a deal with Pittsburgh (via Kessel’s choice). The Coyotes traded forward Alex Galchenyuk and defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph in exchange for Kessel, defensive prospect Dane Birks, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. 

A major free agent signing the Penguins made in the offseason was signing forward Brandon Tanev. Tanev had decided not to resign with his previous team, the Winnipeg Jets, and went to test the free agent waters. Tanev finished last season with 14 goals, 15 assists and 29 points (which was good enough for 11th place in points on the Jets). The Penguins offered him a six-year, $21 million contract ($3.5 million cap hit) with a no-movement clause for all six years. This move was subject to much criticism by fans of the Penguins. Tanev came off of an average season with the Jets, but he is not considered worth the money that the Penguins offered him. He was a third-line forward for the Jets and will most likely remain in that range. $21 million is far too much for a player of that caliber. Additionally, Tanev is 27 years old. Considering a hockey player’s prime is around the ages of 25-30, signing a 27 year-old to a six-year contract is not the best idea. Considering the fact he finished with 18 points the year before, averaging 5 fewer goals and assists in the 2017-18 campaign. He will be 33 by the time his contract expires. This contract was a result of poor asset management by Jim Rutherford.

The Penguins’ competition has strengthened this year as well. The Eastern Conference saw some major, blockbuster trades and signings this offseason. One of these major moves was the New York Rangers signing former Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin. Panarin racked up 28 goals, 59 assists, and finished with an 18 +/-. He was considered one of the best free agents on the market and the Rangers, a rival in the Metropolitan Division, got him. The Rangers also acquired forward Kaapo Kakko in the 2019 NHL Draft, who was considered one of the top prospects in the draft.

Another major move in the offseason was the trading of former Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to the Florida Panthers. Bobrovsky, considered to be one of the best goaltenders currently in the NHL, finished last season with a 91.3% save percentage a 2.58 goals against average. Bobrovsky had expressed desire to leave Columbus in the offseason. The Panthers were in search of a goaltender after Roberto Luongo retired. 

Other interdivisional opponents, like the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and the Carolina Hurricanes have maintained their strong forms. The Hurricanes resigned forward Sebastian Aho. The Islanders signed former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov and resigned forward Anders Lee. The New Jersey Devils got star prospect forward Jack Hughes with the top pick in the NHL Draft, traded for former Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, and forward Wayne Simmonds. The Washington Capitals maintained their stacked lineup of superstars such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov (who will face a three game suspension for cocaine use), Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson, goaltender Braden Holtby, and, a name infamous to almost everyone in the city of Pittsburgh, headhunter Tom Wilson. Needless to say, the competition will remain tough for the Pens. 

It will be a tough season for the Penguins this year. Their offense remains solid. They have returning members like all-star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and solid offensive pieces like Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, and Nick Bjugstad. They also have received new acquisitions like Dominik Kahun and Alex Galchenyuk.

 Their biggest question mark this year is their defense. Although they traded Olli Maatta, some question marks still remain on their defensive roster. Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson have been heavily criticized for their lack of speed on defense. They are physical defensemen, but physicality is not necessarily the key to a Mike Sullivan philosophy. The back-to-back Stanley Cup champion teams were successful in their endeavors because of speed. Their defense was graced with players like Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Kris Letang, and Brian Dumoulin who invigorated the defense with speed. It seems that GM Jim Rutherford has neglected the philosophy of speed in exchange for physicality, but he seems satisfied with the current state of the Penguins. “I think the defense is the best it’s ever been since I’ve been here,” said Rutherford in a press conference. If the Penguins want to be successful, they need to revitalize speed in their defense.

The playoffs will be interesting this year. The Eastern Conference is extremely competitive. The ultimatum for the Penguins will be the way they shape their defense. At their current state, I predict that they will make the playoffs but just miss the top three of the Metropolitan Division, which will be Washington, Carolina, and then the New York Islanders. I predict that they will get the top wild card spot just above the bottom wild card team, the Florida Panthers. However, it will all come down to how they reshape their defense. Just as long as they don’t trade Letang. And then a 1st Round pick may not be a bad thing for a younger defenseman.