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The Hockey Issue: March of the Penguins

By September 25, 2018 No Comments

An in-depth look at the players who plan on bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh in 2018

Sidney Crosby (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk) 

If you are a newer Penguins fan, you got some bad news in June. Sidney Crosby’s Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup every season.

It might have seemed that way based on the fact that they sat on the throne for 726 days – an unprecedented number in the salary cap era – but the Washington Capitals wrestled the title away.

Their Metropolitan Division rivals finally got over the second round hump and the Penguins before rolling past the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights to win their first Stanley Cup.

The loss left a foul taste in the collective mouths of all involved, especially after making a big splash at the trade deadline to acquire center Derick Brassard. Brassard never looked comfortable in Pittsburgh, played through injury during the playoffs and saw his ice time limited.

While some around the league wondered if the Penguins championship window had closed, General Manager Jim Rutherford got to work on crafting the next incarnation of the team almost immediately.

Many of the faces stayed the same, but some new ones are sprinkled throughout. One of Crosby’s old high school buddies has come to town and the team brought back a key piece of their back-to-back championship teams that was sorely missed on and off the ice last season.

Want to know who was brought in? Who they brought back? How those players will be deployed? Then read on, because we’ll be taking a look at all aspects of the roster – the forwards, defensemen and goalies – below.

 

Forwards

The Penguins are flush with NHL caliber forwards and that starts down the middle, where they have no less than six players capable of manning the center position. That group is headlined by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and is fleshed out with Brassard, Riley Sheahan, Derek Grant and the returning Matt Cullen.  

Crosby and Malkin are still two of the best players on the planet and they will man their usual spots on the top two lines, but the rest of the group is pretty hazy.

There have been public and private discussions about using Brassard on the left wing – a position of need for the team – but he has spent his career playing center. He slotted in as the team’s third line pivot last season after arriving in town, but he’s not known for his defensive skill or faceoff prowess. Playing on the third line didn’t allow his offense to flourish and that made the Penguins fairly one-dimensional and top heavy.

He is open to moving to the wing and could see time with Malkin and Phil Kessel. Can that work? Possibly, but no one knows as of this writing because he missed the opening of training camp with a lung infection and only returned to practice on Sep. 19.

Sheahan also missed the start of training camp with a lower-body injury. He’s been skating on his own and the team is hopeful that he’ll be ready for opening night. The 26-year-old looked revitalized upon arriving in Pittsburgh following a trade from Detroit, scoring 11 goals, 21 assists and 32 points in 73 games, but his role changed with the arrival of Brassard. Sheahan was often used as a wing on the third line, but might be best suited for fourth line duty this season, which made the acquisitions of Cullen and Grant more surprising.

The Penguins have won with Cullen and missed his chameleon-esque ability to play up and down their lineup.

Grant, who scored a career-high 12 goals and 24 points last season for the Anaheim Ducks, would be a perfect candidate for the Penguins fourth line if there weren’t already two suitors for the position. That had most assuming that he was a depth signing, but Rutherford insists he was acquired to play in Pittsburgh.

If that is the case at least two of the centers will be moving to the wing, which makes it harder to pencil prospects Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese onto the roster. Both were thought to be locks at the end of last season, but if neither wins a job in the top six it is safe to say that they could be listed as extras or sitting in Wilkes-Barre Scranton waiting for an injury.

The issue is further complicated by the presence of Dominik Simon. He might not have the dazzling shot and offensive instincts of Sprong or the size and net front presence of Aston-Reese, but the coaching staff believes that he does everything else well.

Jake Guentzel has a job on the top line, Carl Hagelin will play regularly and Bryan Rust is a Swiss Army knife that can play anywhere in the lineup. Rutherford also signed Jimmy Hayes, who once scored 19 goals for the Florida Panthers.

It is worth noting that Sprong skated with Guentzel/Crosby and Aston-Reese with Malkin/Kessel during the early stages of training camp, but there are no guarantees that those combos will stick.  

Head coach Mike Sullivan has plenty of options, but here’s one look at how the roster could shake out. (Rust and Hagelin could also be flipped in this scenario, as both bring many of the same traits.)

Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Daniel Sprong

Carl Hagelin – Evgeni Malkin – Phil Kessel

Bryan Rust – Derick Brassard – Patric Hornqvist

Riley Sheahan – Derek Grant – Matt Cullen

EXTRA – Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, Jimmy Hayes

 

DEFENSEMEN

Though the Penguins seemed to lack scoring in the playoffs, their true Achilles’ heel was the blue line. Former Norris Trophy Finalist Kris Letang wasn’t able to consistently play at his usual level after coming off of season-ending neck surgery the previous year and Rutherford opted to include pending free agent and two-time Stanley Cup winner Ian Cole in the Brassard trade.

Sullivan tried some new-look defensive pairings and the group’s propensity to pinch up to force offensive plays – something that was part of the system they won two Stanley Cups playing – created too many odd-man breaks that turned into goals against. Opposing forwards picked off passes or chipped pucks past those defenders catching them flatfooted in the neutral zone. That forced the team’s goaltenders to face a ton of grade-A scoring opportunities, including the overtime breakaway Capitals’ forward Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on to send the Penguins home in the second round of the playoffs.

Rutherford didn’t like what he saw, but his blue line solution — signing defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year, $16.25 million dollar contract — left fans ready to picket outside of PPG Paints Arena.

Johnson’s dropping offensive production, his advanced analytics and possession numbers in Columbus, combined with being a healthy scratch in the playoffs created much consternation.  

The stats might not look great, but Johnson, who played high school hockey with Crosby at Shattuck St Mary’s School in Minnesota, could be a nice fit with the Penguins. The 6-foot-1, 227-pounder is a leader and served as an assistant captain throughout his tenure with the Blue Jackets. He’s physical and isn’t shy about jumping into the play.

In 77 games last season he recorded 101 hits and 135 blocked shots. Johnson was also a staple on the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill logging 2:06 minutes per game.

Since debuting with the Los Angeles Kings during the 2007 season, Johnson has played in 788 games, recording 278 points (66G-212A).

The hope here is that he’ll add to those offensive totals. He has spent the early days of camp being deployed as part of a five-man unit with Justin Schultz, Crosby, Guentzel and Sprong during intrasquad scrimmages.

His ability to make a strong breakout pass that catches forwards with speed in the neutral zone was a key reason for his acquisition.

The Penguins also return Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel.

Dumoulin is coming off of a breakout season that saw him record career highs in goals (5), points (18) and time on ice (20:37). He has quietly become one of the best defenders in the game and will continue in his spot alongside Letang on the team’s top pairing.

Maatta, selected in the first round in 2012, also set career marks in goals (7), assists (22) and shots on goal (164) and tied his career high in points (29). He’s grown into a more consistent player with each passing season and more importantly stayed healthy, playing in all 82 games last season.

Oleksiak is a work in progress, but his size is a huge asset. He stands 6-foot-7, 250-pounds, uses his reach to break up plays and has a booming shot. Schultz dipped statistically from career highs two seasons ago, but was still a vital piece when he was healthy. He appeared in 63 games.

Ruhwedel’s puck skills have been very valuable over the past several seasons as the team’s seventh defenseman, but keep an eye on Finnish import Juuso Riikolo and American Hockey League sniper Stefan Elliott. Each has turned heads during training camp and could make an impact this season.

Here’s how the blue line could shake out:

Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang

Olli Maatta – Jack Johnson

Jamie Oleksiak– Justin Schultz

Extra: Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, Stefan Elliott

 

GOALIES

Matt Murray is the unquestioned starter but he’s coming off a year that saw his goals against average (2.92) go up and his save percentage (.907) go down. He still managed to post 27 wins, but he didn’t look like himself for most of the year.

That can be attributed to losing his father in January as well as being diagnosed with a concussion. He managed to get through the injury and the personal tragedy, but his game never got back to its usual level. Questions about his glove hand remain as well. He used the offseason to work on all aspects of the position and feels like he’ll be better than ever. (see graphic).  

There is an ongoing battle for the back-up job. Both Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry served in that capacity at times last season.

Jarry cut his body fat over the summer and arrived at camp in the best shape of his career. He hopes to build upon a season that saw him go 14-6-2, with a 2.77 GAA, .908 save percentage with two shutouts. He showed off his skills against the Detroit Red Wings during his preseason debut stopping 41 of 44 shots, including 18 of 19 in the second period.

DeSmith also shined during his preseason debut against the Buffalo Sabres, making 26 saves on 29 shots, and he looks even better than he did last season when he went 6-4-1, with a 2.40 GAA, .921 save percentage and one shutout.

This is one question that might not have an answer until the final cuts of camp.

 

Brian Metzer is the Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer. Contact him at brian@pittsburghcurrent.com.

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