Before the season began, each Rotoworld writer was asked to make an oddball prediction and mine was that the Pittsburgh Penguins would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006. I’ll say this now: If the Penguins do end up missing the playoffs, it won’t count.
Pittsburgh is 24-11-4, which is good for third place in the very tough Metropolitan Division, but of course, their postseason spot is far from secure in early January. The fact that they’ve more than held their own in the first half is impressive though and if they end up sliding in the second half, it’s hard to blame them. They’ve just had far too much terrible luck when it comes to injuries.
Usually I don’t like to give the Penguins a pass when it comes to injury troubles. Pittsburgh tends to sign injury prone players to long-term contracts and if you do that then you can’t really act shocked when you don’t get a full season out of said players. But even if I were to judge them a little harsher than most over that, this has still be a terribly unlucky campaign.
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Forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, and Nick Bjugstad have all missed significant sections of the first half due to injury. One of the reason they were able to keep going through that all was Jake Guentzel, who showed his breakout 2018-19 campaign was no fluke by scoring 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games. However, after not missing a single game from 2017-18 onward, he went crashing into the boards on Monday following an accidental collision with Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot. The result is that Guentzel needed season-ending shoulder surgery.
Just like that, the Penguins have lost the one shining consistent among their forward core. The silver lining is that Crosby is getting close to returning, which will be a big boost, but even still, not having Guentzel creates a huge hole in their offensive core. All eyes should now turn to Alex Galchenyuk, who has been disappointing this season with 13 points in 30 games, but might get a fresh top-six opportunity as a result of Guentzel’s absence.
The Penguins have also taken hits on defense too with Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin missing chunks of time. In Schultz’s case, he has been sidelined since Dec. 17th and hasn’t resumed skating yet.
At least in goal there’s been good news. Matt Murray has underwhelmed this season, but Tristan Jarry has ended up being one of the Penguins’ savors. He has a 13-5-0 record, 1.88 GAA, and .938 save percentage in 18 contests this season. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the second half. Jarry has been something of a revelation this season, but the 24-year-old was originally taken in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, so the Penguins clearly thought highly of him from Day 1. The Penguins haven’t made a commitment yet to Murray either. Both goaltenders are set to become restricted free agents this summer and are roughly the same age, so while Murray has the more impressive resume with his Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017, his inconsistent showings since that amazing start to his career means that he’s far from cemented his role as the Penguins’ long-term solution in goal. There is certainly an opportunity here for Jarry to establish himself in that role.
Moving on from the Penguins, there’s been renewed talk about Justin Williams possibly resuming his NHL career. After scoring 23 goals and 53 points in 82 games last season and then leading the Carolina Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final following a upset against the defending champion Washington Capitals in the first round and a sweep of the Islanders in the second, Williams decided to take a break. Now it seems he might be close to ending it by signing with the Hurricanes or perhaps some other team in the near future.
Certainly there would be reason for interest. Although he’s 38-years-old now, Williams’ success just last season suggests that he still has something left to give. Plus he’s always been a great presence and clutch player in the playoffs. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and has earned the nickname “Mr. Game 7.” So contending teams would have every reason to take a chance on him as a midseason signing and given that the Hurricanes are in the battle for a playoff spot, it would make all the sense in the world for him to simply re-sign with them.
Is he still a fantasy asset though? I’d lean against taking him in standard league. For as good as he is, in the context of most fantasy leagues, he was a borderline player last season and missing half the season probably isn’t going to do him any favors. It will likely take him time to get back into the swing of things. Maybe he’ll be strong in the last couple months, but even if that’s the case, it’d make sense to wait-and-see, picking him up only if and when he starts to heat up.
He’d be far more favorable in playoff leagues. By then he’ll have shaken off the rust and the postseason has always been where he shines anyways.
Speaking of available UFAs, Ilya Kovalchuk remains unsigned after the Kings terminated his contract on Dec. 18th. Shortly after he became a free agent, it was suggested that he’d be willing to sign for the league minimum for the sake of playing for a contender. The fact that he still hasn’t signed in spite of that desire suggests that contending teams are pretty hesitant to add him to their roster. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done though. If nothing else, a team battered by injuries might decide to take a chance on him at the least as a stopgap measure. Maybe Pittsburgh for example might be interested? That’s pure speculation, but there is an opening there at this point and maybe Kovalchuk could find chemistry with countryman Evgeni Malkin.
Like Williams, I wouldn’t pick Kovalchuk up when he signs, but he’ll be worth keeping an eye on. Despite Kovalchuk not working out with the Kings, he might end up enjoying a comeback with whatever squad ends up giving him a chance.