The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.
For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Pittsburgh Penguins.
At this point, you almost just assume the Penguins and Capitals will scratch and claw for the Metropolitan Division title and everyone else can have the scraps. But that’s beginning to change.
The Penguins (44-26-12, 100 points) finished third last year behind Washington and the New York Islanders and then were swept by the Islanders in the first round. That’s different.
Looking for a bit of a makeover, Pittsburgh traded star winger Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and salary-cap space. Galchenyuk is a nice player and probably fits well on a second-line next to Evgeni Malkin, but he topped out at 56 points in 2015-16 with the Montreal Canadiens and had just 41 last year in 72 games with Arizona.
Maybe that changes playing with the likes of Malkin and he should see some power-play time, too. But Kessel had 82 last year and 92 the year before. There’s no real comparison between the two players. Pittsburgh needed a facelift and more balance to its roster, but the cost was steep.
No team with Crosby or Malkin should worry about missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Crosby had 100 points last season and is still going strong at 32. There was a good case to be made that he should have won the Selke Award as the NHL’s best defensive forward. He finished fourth. But that all-around play and Crosby’s continued offensive brilliance was good for second place in the Hart Trophy race for MVP.
Write Pittsburgh off at your peril with a player like that on the roster. Malkin needs to rebound, though. He declined in 2018-19 with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games. He is 33 now and age can’t be discounted there. Malkin missed 14 games and has played fewer than 70 in five of the past six seasons. Especially with Kessel gone, he needs to get back to a full-season, 90-point pace. If that doesn’t happen Pittsburgh could be in some trouble.
Jake Guentzel should be fine playing with Crosby after a 40-goal season. Bryan Rust is a valuable player who can go up and down the lineup. But there isn’t a ton of goal-scoring depth here. Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, acquired from Florida at the trade deadline, should produce in a full season with the Penguins.
Patric Hornqvist (18 goals, 19 assists) showed signs of decline and will turn 33 on Jan. 1. His physical style of play doesn’t exactly lead to aging well so the Penguins hope he stabilizes. Hornqvist hasn’t played in more than 70 games since 2015-16. There’s a lot of mileage there in 11 NHL seasons.
But that forward group, buoyed by emerging players like Dominik Simon, 25 and Dominik Kahun, 24, should be plenty good enough. There were lots of curious looks around the league when the Penguins gave forward Brandon Tanev a six-year contract. At some point soon, that will be regretted. But there’s no question he’s a tough, two-way player and he had 14 goals for the Winnipeg Jets last season.
Matt Murray in goal is a proven Stanley Cup winner. Maybe they’d like a little more consistency than he showed with a .919 save percentage last season in 50 games, but if he’s healthy the Penguins won’t have any worries in goal.
The blueline is dicey. Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang are an excellent top pair. But Pittsburgh traded defenseman Olli Maatta. The hope is Marcus Pettersson can rise and join Justin Schultz on the second pair. But that leaves Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson on the third pair for now. Both have worn out their welcome on two previous teams. There’s not much depth here at all and Letang is a great bet to miss at least 10 games given his injury track record. He missed 16 last season.
There are some worrisome signs here. Trading a player like Kessel is never going to be a net plus. There is age creeping onto the roster in several areas and the blue line is paper-thin. The poor playoff performance against the Islanders leads to an anxiety spike, too. But as long as they have Crosby and Malkin playing at a high level, the Penguins should be a solid playoff team and make another run at 100 points and a Metro title.
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