It has been a rough three years for the Pittsburgh Penguins following back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017. Sure, they have made the playoffs 15 consecutive seasons, the best among all professional sports teams. They even won the shortened Eastern Division title last year.
But the team hasn’t won a playoff series since hoisting the Cup in Nashville and Father Time is not on their side. Their “big three” of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are all 34 years of age or older. They all still have game left in the tank, but with Malkin likely starting the season on the injured reserve, the Penguins will rely on a healthy dose of home games (eight of their first ten games at PPG Paints Arena) and another experienced veteran in 36-year-old Jeff Carter to hopefully hold things down on the second line until Malkin returns to get Pittsburgh off to a fast start.
Crosby led the team with 24 goals and 62 points and he still is among the elite players in the league. Skating with Jake Guentzel (23-34-57) and Bryan Rust (22-20-42), that line is still among the best in the NHL, especially when all are healthy. Guentzel struggled during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but during the regular season, he was as feared as any player.
The player who I look forward to seeing perform on the second line is right winger Kasperi Kapanen, who’s an explosive scorer with speed and durability. Also, Carter will have to prove that at 36-years-old, his short success last year when acquired from Los Angeles was indeed something that Pittsburgh will be able to look forward to again this season. Jason Zucker didn’t show a lot of consistency on the offensive side last year, and the question remains will he as to whether or not he’ll stick around on the second line, or will that spot be fulfilled by a new face in Brock McGinn?
McGinn was acquired from Carolina and scored 13 points last season with the Hurricanes. But all indications are he will be a productive player this season for the Penguins. Another new face is right-winger Danton Heinen. He is another player who could see some quality time in the team’s top nine. As well, free agent centreman Brian Boyle was recently signed to a professional tryout contract, and after taking last year off, he could be another sleeper with potential to make the team’s roster.
The bottom six should see players like Zach Aston-Reese, Evan Rodrigues and Sam Lafferty battle for ice time, while Teddy Blueger produced 22 points last season. Offensively, the loss of Jared McCann, one of Pittsburgh’s top power play guys, along with Brandon Tanev, a physical wing who was selected by the Seattle Kraken, leaves a void for the Penguins to fulfill. Pittsburgh brass is hoping that Samuel Poulin, who was drafted in 2019, is ready to make the jump to pro hockey and become a production force in 2021-22.
Defensively, Letang showed he still can play the game at a high level, completing last season with 45 points, while anchoring the top defensive line with Brian Dumoulin. John Marino was a player a couple of years ago with high aspirations with the Penguins, but his production dropped to just 13 points across 52 contests. The defence will need to step up their game with the late-season struggles of goaltender Tristan Jarry, who didn’t play well in the team’s early elimination last season. With a healthy Casey DeSmith backing him up, expect both to be ready to prove the naysayers wrong.
Who knows how many years the Penguins cup window will remain open. Some say it has already closed, but with the likes of Crosby and a healthy Malkin, along with a strong group of young players who have shown signs of brilliance, a 16th consecutive playoff appearance is not entirely out of the question.