The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since 2005-06, Sidney Crosby‘s rookie season. In that time, they’ve won three Stanley Cups and have been at or near the top of their division each season. Pittsburgh has been arguably the NHL’s most consistent team for more than a decade.
But all that winning will catch up to any franchise. The Penguins might be third in the Metropolitan — riding an 11-3-1 run — but can they hang on all season in an increasingly tough division in the East? Leading scorer Jake Guentzel is out four-to-six months due to a shoulder injury. Crosby has been out for two months now due to a core muscle injury. Assumed No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray has struggled, allowing Tristan Jarry to steal the majority of recent starts. Amid the shots to the team’s depth chart, a lackluster prospect pool doesn’t offer much support.
What’s next for the Penguins? Can they keep pace with the Capitals, Islanders, Hurricanes and stealthy Flyers? Our NHL team — Emily Kaplan, Greg Wyshynski, Chris Peters and Rick DiPietro — answers the biggest questions about what lies ahead for Pittsburgh.
How does the loss of Jake Guentzel impact the Pittsburgh lineup?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Guentzel was the Penguins’ most productive forward, with 43 points in 39 games, and likely their MVP in this injury-plagued season. Just hours after he was named to his first All-Star Game, the 25-year-old rammed into the boards, and the result was a season-ending right shoulder injury. Brutal.
The good news? Guentzel isn’t the only guy putting up numbers. Bryan Rust is having a heckuva season, despite two trips to injured reserve. Evgeni Malkin has been outstanding in the absence of Crosby. Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev have been great depth additions. In the short term, Dominik Kahun will get another shot on the top line alongside Malkin because the team doesn’t seem to trust Alex Galchenyuk there. The Penguins can use some of Guentzel’s $6 million cap hit if they place him on long-term IR, clearing the way for GM Jim Rutherford to do what he does best: make a hockey trade.
What happens when Sidney Crosby returns?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Sighs of relief will actually affect weather patterns in Pittsburgh. Beyond that, Crosby impacts everything the Penguins do besides the penalty kill. Yes, he’ll miss Guentzel as a linemate, but Crosby is going to elevate the play of anyone the Pens slot alongside him: Witness Dominik Simon, who had nine points in 17 games while Sid was healthy and seven points in 25 games without him in the lineup. I’d like to see McCann get a shot with Crosby in place of Guentzel to see if he can rekindle that early-season goal-scoring touch.
Besides Kris Letang, no one plays more on the power play than Crosby. Last season, that unit was ranked fifth; this season, it’s 22nd. That’ll improve. The best news about Crosby returning is that he comes back to a team in a playoff seed and won’t need to turn it into one.
They saw something in Alex Galchenyuk, though, right? What’s his deal?
Kaplan: Galchenyuk has proven that he can be a 30-goal scorer in this league (he did it once in 2015-16). He has terrific hands, a great shot and good enough speed. Plus, he’s only 25. You can see why the Penguins felt comfortable taking a chance on him after a so-so season in Arizona. Maybe he needed another change of scenery.
Unfortunately, Galchenyuk has been a nonfactor most of this season. The team initially envisioned him playing alongside Malkin, but there doesn’t seem to be any chemistry there. At this point, Pittsburgh is probably fine cutting its losses on Galchenyuk, considering that he’s on an expiring contract. The Pens shopped him a bit, but there aren’t exactly teams lining up to take him and his $4.9 million salary.
In hindsight, is there any regret about dealing Phil Kessel?
Wyshynski: Perhaps from a statistical standpoint. Kessel was a point-per-game winger last season. That isn’t easy to find in this league. The power play has taken a hit because Crosby is injured, but it’s also missing the 36 power-play points that Kessel ran up last season. The asset the Pens acquired from the Coyotes for Kessel, Galchenyuk, has four goals in 33 games. But there are two factors here that might quell that regret.
First: Kessel isn’t playing like Kessel. He has nine goals and 24 points in 44 games, his lowest averages since his early days with the Bruins. The decision to deal him was a decision to sell as high as a team could before a potential decline in the 32-year-old’s game, as his contract runs through 2022.
Second: It had become an untenable situation behind the scenes in Pittsburgh. Kessel had a rift with coach Mike Sullivan. According to a report from Rob Rossi of The Athletic, Malkin refused to play with Kessel and might have asked for a trade if Kessel remained on the Penguins — which, of course, he did not.
Can they call up any prospects from the minors?
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: No, not really. The Penguins have a few options in the AHL — winger Sam Miletic is probably their best prospect — but they might continue to recall veteran minor league guys as they’ve been doing.
The biggest issue for Pittsburgh is that its best prospects are a few years away and, as of right now, ineligible to be recalled due to the NHL’s agreement with the Canadian Hockey League. Even if Pittsburgh wanted to call up players such as Calen Addison and Nathan Legare, they are unavailable, except for a rare possible emergency recall, which could be for only the short term.
We know Jim Rutherford likes to wheel and deal at the trade deadline. Do you expect any moves this season?
Kaplan: Rutherford is definitely a transaction-happy general manager, and he’s always looking for ways to better his roster and stay competitive while Crosby and Malkin are still at elite levels. I see the Penguins as buyers this deadline. Rutherford should reward his roster and coaching staff for playing so admirably despite adversity in the first half. The obvious need right now is a winger, especially with Guentzel’s long-term absence. Ideally, that would be someone who can play alongside Malkin on the top line, but anywhere in the middle six would be fine.
What’s one trade you’d like to see the Penguins make?
Wyshynski: I’d love to see them find a way to land Tyler Toffoli from the Kings to skate with Crosby. He has 24 points in 43 games, is 23nd among forwards in expected goals and can play both wings. His contract carries a $4.6 million cap hit — significant but manageable — but doesn’t have trade protection and expires after this season. Toffoli has been through a Stanley Cup push before, too. Hopefully the Penguins aren’t put off by the Tanner Pearson experience, and they go to the Kings’ forward well again.
Starts in net have been filtering to Tristan Jarry of late. Has Matt Murray peaked?
Rick DiPietro, radio host and former NHL goalie: It’s hard to fathom that this question is even being asked when you consider that Murray is 25 years old and a two-time Stanley Cup winner. I find it hard to believe that someone with Murray’s size and ability has already peaked. The goaltending position is very technical, and he has worked hard to correct some of the issues with his glove positioning that have caused him problems.
The mental aspect is also in play here. The biggest issue I see with Murray is his confidence. It isn’t something that can be corrected overnight, and a good run of consistent starts will go a long way toward reestablishing him as the Penguins’ No. 1 option in net. His most recent start — a 26-save, overtime win against the Canadiens on Jan. 4 — is definitely a step in the right direction.
Is Jarry the No. 1 if the Pens make the playoffs?
DiPietro: Remember when the Capitals started Philipp Grubauer in Game 1 of the first round against the Blue Jackets back in 2017-18? Do you also remember how quickly they went back to Braden Holtby in Game 2? Do you then remember “The Save” in the final and the Stanley Cup championship that soon followed?
Jarry has been great and has given the Crosby-less Penguins the kind of upper-echelon goaltending they need. Obviously, if he continues to play at this level and the Penguins continue to win, Jarry will be tasked with the starting job in the playoffs. But if it’s close and Murray is still a member of the Penguins, I’d have to believe that coach Sullivan would lean on Murray’s two Stanley Cups and 48 games of postseason experience.
What is this team’s strength right now?
Kaplan: We’ve focused so much on the comings and goings of the Pittsburgh forwards that the defensive side of the lineup has been overshadowed. But that has been one of the team’s biggest strengths. I ran into Rutherford at a morning skate two weeks ago and briefly chatted about his team. He couldn’t stop raving about Jarry and rookie defenseman John Marino. He said if you’re going to have a successful season, you need to have a few surprises, and those two players have been Pittsburgh’s surprises (in a good way).
Letang is playing some great hockey on a Pittsburgh blue line that doesn’t have too many weak links. Even Jack Johnson is having a nice bounce-back season. The Penguins limit opponents to fewer than 30 shots per game and have allowed the third-fewest high-danger chances in the league, according to Natural Stat Trick data. And of course, backing it all up most nights is Jarry, who leads the NHL in save percentage.
Are the Penguins still serious Stanley Cup contenders?
Wyshynski: There are still a lot of things to like about these Penguins in Guentzel’s absence, including their being first in the NHL in expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 (54.84). If Jarry is the real deal and the Pens’ stout defensive play (2.69 goals against per game) continues, they could be a tough out in the playoffs. But while it’s a fool’s errand to count out any team that has Crosby on the roster, I’m not sure the Penguins have the horses to win more than a round.
Predict the Penguins’ finish to the season.
Kaplan: If the Penguins stayed alive for this long with their hobbled roster, I don’t see how they’ll miss the playoffs … unless they totally run out of steam. I like them in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference when it’s all said and done.
Wyshynski: I like them for third in the Metropolitan Division and another first-round date with the Islanders, against whom Pittsburgh will seek a measure of sweep revenge.