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Previewing the Metro: Pittsburgh Penguins

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Can the Penguins make it three Cups in four years?

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Another year, another chance for the Pittsburgh Penguins to win a Stanley Cup thanks to the play of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. After watching the Washington Capitals win it all to end their run of owning the Cup, the Pens added a veteran defenseman in an attempt to be the first team to win three titles in a four-year span since the Edmonton Oilers capped off their run in 1990. Are the Philadelphia Flyers’ biggest rivals on the verge of doing The Thing again?

Additions and subtractions

Pittsburgh Penguins 2018 offseason moves

Additions Subtractions
Additions Subtractions
Jack Johnson Conor Sheary
Derek Grant Matt Hunwick
Matt Cullen Tom Kuhnhackl
Jimmy Hayes Carter Rowney
Juuso Riikola Josh Jooris
Stefan Elliott Jean-Sebastien Dea
John Muse Jarred Tinordi
Linus Olund Tom Sestito
Frederik Tiffels

The biggest roster move for Pittsburgh this offseason was the addition of Jack Johnson, who the Pens are hoping can be another borderline mobile d-man that they can turn into a key top-four defender. Bringing back Matt Cullen is a nice addition, but the 41-year-old and Derek Grant don’t really bring a new dynamic to the Pens’ bottom six, which will now be without Conor Sheary (now in Buffalo), Tom Kuhnhackl (now with the New York Islanders), and Carter Rowney (now in Anaheim).

Strengths and weaknesses
The strengths of the Pens aren’t changing in 2018-19. They will have three of the most productive forwards in the game who could all break 90 points this season, something no other team in the league can really offer. Malkin posted 98 points, Phil Kessel posted 92, and Crosby posted 89 points, and there is no reason why those three can’t repeat those numbers this year.

This trio, combined with Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist (who potted 29 goals last season), were the league’s best power-play unit in 2017-18 after powering Pittsburgh to their second straight Cup in 2017. Obviously, this five-man unit is hard to cover. The league has struggled against Crosby and Malkin, who both finished third in the league with 38 power-play points, for awhile and that doesn’t account for Kessel, who led the league with 42 power-play points. The firepower has been too much for opposing penalty kills, and there shouldn’t be any slowing down this season.

Unfortunately, teams aren’t going to necessarily be able to take advantage of the Pens at 5-on-5 either, as they finished fifth with a 52.23 corsi for percentage last season and a 52.69 (nice) expected goals for percentage to finish seventh. The 2016-17 regular season and postseason may have seen a dip in Pittsburgh’s 5-on-5 dominance (still sixth with a 52.44 expected goals for during the regular season), but the team monopolized the puck during their run to the Cup in 2016 as well. After Sullivan’s arrival, the Pens annihilated the competition to finish first in expected goals for during both the 2015-16 regular season and 2016 postseason.

For everything they are capable of accomplishing in terms of keeping the puck in the opponents’ zone, the one weakness heading into the 2018-19 season for Pittsburgh is their goaltending. That sounds a little surprising considering how hyped up Matt Murray was before he reached the NHL and how successful he was during that 2016 Cup run. After posting a .923 save percentage and a shutout accompanied by many timely saves during the 2016 postseason and finishing the 2017 postseason with a .937 save percentage and three clean sheets, Murray only had one shutout with a .907 save percentage in 49 games last season. He also looked less than spectacular in the 2018 playoffs, as he allowed three goals or more in six of the Pens’ 12 games on the way to a .908 save percentage.

In Murray’s defense, he missed six games due to the passing of his father, which most definitely impacted him for the remainder of his season. However, injuries are a bit of a concern for the netminder. He also missed nine games last season with a concussion and missed 11 playoff games in 2017 with a lower-body injury. Murray is without a doubt a skilled goaltender, but he didn’t have his best season in 2017-18. If he isn’t able to bounce back, or is consistently dealing with nagging injuries, the Pens will hope Casey DeSmith can have another strong handful of games at the NHL level or hope to get more out of Tristan Jarry.

One big question: will Johnson stabilize Pittsburgh’s blue line?
Defense could have been listed above as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses, but they’ve seemed to overcome underwhelming defensive groups over the last few seasons thanks to their amazing high-end forward up front and Sullivan’s system minimizing the team’s time spent in the defensive zone. Adding Johnson would probably hurt most team’s underlying numbers, but with how they’ve handled other mediocre rearguards, could the former Blue Jacket give the Pens three reasonable defensive pairings?

Despite playing a prominent role for both the Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets since the start of his career, Johnson has been a pretty below-average mobile blue liner by both the eye test and analytics. With that being said, Sergei Gonchar, who has been a development coach specializing in defensemen with the Pens since 2015-16, has helped turn other below-average mobile defensemen into passable or even above average players in Sullivan’s system. Although Matt Hunwick wasn’t a hit last season, the Pens’ coaching staff turned to Trevor Daley often during their back-to-back Stanley Cups and used Ron Hainsey during their 2017 run. After struggling for seasons with the Oilers, Justin Schultz saw improvement in his play and posted 51 points during the 2016-17 season with Pittsburgh.

With just 11 points in 77 games to go along with a 48.02 corsi for percentage (-5.19 relative corsi for percentage) and 48.27 expected goals for percentage (-5 relative expected goals for percentage), it’s easy to question whether or not this was a smart move for the Penguins. That’s before you wonder why a team in Pittsburgh’s situation would want to lock up a 31-year-old blue liner to a 5-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3.25 million.

The pair of Letang and Brian Dumoulin may be the most unheralded aspect of the team. As one of 11 defensive pairings to play 1,000 or more 5-on-5 minutes together last season, Letang-Dumoulin finished third among those 11 pairs with a 54.69 corsi for percentage and third with a 54.41 expected goals for percentage. They also finished second with a rate of 51.82 shot attempts against per 60 and a rate of 38.06 unblocked shot attempts per 60. After this pair, however, the Penguins had trouble with their second and third pairs. If Johnson can help give the Pens a decent second pair with either Olli Maatta or Jamie Oleksiak it could be real annoying.

2018-19 outlook
There’s no reason why the Penguins shouldn’t only compete for the division title, but yet another Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals no longer are cursed when facing the Pens in the postseason, but Pittsburgh still has what it needs to beat the Caps in a playoff series. The Atlantic Division will be offering the threats of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Boston Bruins, but the Pens have the firepower to beat any of these squads. They’re expected to make yet another deep playoff run and anything short of another Stanley Cup will be considered a failure, as the window to keep winning with Crosby and Malkin inches closer to being shut.

*Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica