Over the past decade, the Pittsburgh Penguins have flown in the face of conventional wisdom. They’re fairly inconsistent from game to game and ice a spotty defensive corps, but they’ve won three of the past 10 championships on the strength of almost unstoppable firepower. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up the middle, the Pens boast a ridiculous 1-2 punch that has served as a trump card against stingier and more balanced opponents. They could get away with not playing well because they could also mount overwhelming waves of attack.
In short, they could just score their way out of a pickle.
The 2018-19 season pushed that narrative to the very edge. Two of the team’s core contributors, Malkin (72 points in 68 games) and Phil Kessel (82 points in 82 games), were content to coast through the year racking up points and letting others do the heavy lifting. The former, who can single-handedly take over games to a degree that perhaps no one can rival, rarely flashed that bull-in-a-china-shop dominance. Meanwhile, the latter has always struggled to muster enough competitive drive to establish himself as a true superstar. Since Malkin wasn’t all in, Kessel certainly wasn’t going to pick up the slack. Between the pipes, starter Matt Murray was downright lousy at the beginning of the year. By the end of November, he was sitting on a 4.08 GAA and 87.7 SV%.
Many key components were faltering…but that’s the beauty of icing both Malkin and Crosby (100 points in 79 games). Pittsburgh’s captain enjoyed his strongest campaign in years, embracing greater three-zone responsibility to control 54.5% of the shot attempts, 56.1% of the scoring chances and 58.6% of the high-danger bids for a 56.5% expected goal share at 5-on-5. He and Jake Guentzel’s (76 points in 82 games) high-end scoring ability propelled his actual GF% to a superb 65.6. Among forwards who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, he ranked first in that metric.
Sidney Crosby = Super Human
Crosby’s goal gives him 10 points (6G-4A) in 7 road games this season. He has recorded at least a point in 6 of 7 of those games. pic.twitter.com/SqflEwuMaj
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 8, 2018
The 32-year-old hit the century mark in points while owning two-thirds of the goals scored during his shifts. That’s nothing short of outstanding.
In the end, the top line’s brilliance was crucial because there wasn’t much assistance lower on the depth chart. Malkin and Kessel were on autopilot, Patric Hornqvist’s output (37 points in 69 games) was highly dependent on his linemates, Carl Hagelin (3 points in 16 games) couldn’t fit anywhere on the roster and was dealt for an equally underwhelming Tanner Pearson (14 points in 44 games), Derick Brassard (15 points in 40 games) was in a daze and bottom-sixers Riley Sheahan (9 points in 49 games) and Matt Cullen (20 points in 71 games) couldn’t keep their heads above water.
On the back end, Kris Letang (56 points in 65 games) and Brian Dumoulin formed a stellar partnership on the first pair. Letang brings great mobility and skill to the table, whereas Dumoulin offers his partner sound positioning and wonderful defensive acumen. The 27-year-old is as steady as it gets, taking smart angles on puck-carriers and disrupting their designs with an active stick. Together, the duo posted a 54.5 CF%, 56.3 SCF%, 54.8 HDCF% and 54.0 xGF%. Since they play on an opportunistic club, they registered a sparkling 63.6 GF%. Once again, though, there were depth issues. Reliable puck-mover Justin Schultz missed most of the season due to injury, Olli Maatta’s stock continued to drop and Juuso Riikola, Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel were mediocre in lesser roles.
Jack Johnson, for his part, was an utter disaster. The veteran possesses all the tools to succeed, but his hockey sense leaves much to be desired. Poor decision-making, gap control and net-front coverage resulted in a 43.4 GF%.
On the flip side, Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson were pleasant surprises. The 23-year-old was acquired for Daniel Sprong and instantly delivered calm showings on the blue line. There were occasional growing pains, but he offered far more positives than negatives. Gudbranson, who was picked third overall by the Florida Panthers in 2010, may have had the best stretch of his career after joining the Pens. He kept things simple and bullied opponents in the slot to the tune of a 58.4 SCF%, 64.9 HDCF% and 59.1 xGF%. It’s hard to ask for much more than that from a third-pairing defenseman.
Murray, who was down in the dumps early, recovered in a major way. From December through the end of the season, the 25-year-old posted a 2.34 GAA and 93.0 SV%, rediscovering the form he showed when Pittsburgh won back-to-back titles in his first two pro seasons. When he’s on, there are few better netminders in the world. He becomes confident, efficient and quiet. He may not land on quite as many highlight reels this way, but that’s because he’s in perfect position to square up and block out any daylight for the shooters.
He and backup Casey DeSmith (2.75 GAA, 91.6 SV%) combined to post the fourth-highest on-ice SV% in the league, turning a question mark into an undeniable team strength.
YOU KIDDIN’ ME, CASEY DeSMITH?! 😦 pic.twitter.com/H1tvPGGVMY
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) March 15, 2018
Despite the peaks and valleys spread throughout the lineup, the few bright spots burned so bright that they masked the blemishes. The Pens put up a 49.7 CF% (15th), 52.1 SCF% (10th), 53.6 HDCF% (6th) and 54.8 GF% (6th). They finished sixth offensively, fifth on the power play, 14th defensively and third overall in the Metropolitan Division.
Unfortunately, they proceeded to run into a hungry New York Islanders team that was led by Barry Trotz — the same coach who had finally solved Pittsburgh on the road to Washington’s first championship in franchise history — in the first round of the playoffs. He knew precisely how to thwart the Pens, driving play to the perimeter and building an impenetrable fortress in the slot. On defense, Dumoulin was clearly banged up and nowhere near as effective as he was in the regular season. Seeing as he’s the most reliable blueliner on the roster, his slide couldn’t have occurred at a worse moment. Letang was exposed, committing gaffe after gaffe without his safety net there to smooth things over.
Throughout the conference quarterfinals, head coach Mike Sullivan’s men owned 55.7% of the shot attempts but just 46.8% of the high-danger opportunities and 14.3% of the high-danger goals. The Islanders’ relentless work ethic and solidity in the trenches prevented a listless Pens squad from skating by on natural talent. Pittsburgh never displayed a sense of urgency and thus didn’t win a single game.
General manager Jim Rutherford didn’t panic in the offseason, though. He merely tweaked the complexion of his forward corps.
First, he shipped Kessel to Arizona in exchange for gifted albeit underachieving forward Alex Galchenyuk (41 points in 72 games). The 2012 third overall pick is about as streaky as Kessel is, but he possesses a stronger frame that’s better suited for life in the dirty areas. His shot is also not quite as deadly…which could actually work to the team’s advantage. Too often, Malkin was content to defer to Kessel as the trigger man when the Russian star is truly at his best as a dual threat. Restoring some balance to his game is pivotal. If Sullivan can coach Galchenyuk into playing a bit more assertively, this transaction may well turn out to be a net positive.
Rutherford then signed Brandon Tanev (29 points in 80 games) to a six-year, $21 million deal in free agency. The 27-year-old is a whirling dervish with boundless energy. Despite a modest build, he won’t back down from anyone and competes his heart out along the boards. That should prove useful to a club that was far too soft down the stretch.
Two of the guiltiest parties in that regard, Brassard and Cullen, are gone. The former was dealt to Florida and then Colorado only to join the Islanders in free agency, whereas the latter retired. That sets the table for a different look up front. Sure, there aren’t any big-time prospects knocking on the door. However, the new additions as well as full years for Jared McCann (17 points in 32 games) and Nick Bjugstad (14 points in 32 games) should yield a younger, feistier and more determined group.
On the blue line, Pettersson must take it upon himself to establish greater consistency and lock down a top-four role. Maatta was dealt to Chicago, so the opportunity is there on the left side. Schultz is healthy too, which provides stability and experience on that pairing. That leaves Gudbranson to patrol the third unit. While he may not have panned out as a lottery pick for the Panthers, he can certainly handle limited minutes against soft competition. He’s a big, physical stay-at-home rearguard who needs a more mobile counterpart to help him clear the zone. That slot is totally up for grabs.
Last season, the Islanders steamrolled a Pens team that simply wasn’t ready to compete. This is a new year with a hungrier club, though, and that swift, embarrassing kick in the ass may well allow them to hit another gear once more.