For as long as the new era of hockey fans can remember, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the best teams in the National Hockey League. Since drafting Sidney Crosby in 2005, the franchise has made the Stanley Cup Finals four times, winning three of them in 2009, 2016, and 2017. However, every good run eventually has to come to an end, and it looks like the Penguins’ will start now. Let’s highlight why.
Evgeni Malkin Suffered a Likely Career-Altering Injury
Last season, Evgeni Malkin was limited to just 58% of the games due to injuries, and when he did play, he didn’t look like the regular player we were used to watching. He looked uninterested at times, his speed was nowhere near what we saw in his dominant 2019-20 campaign, and he just looked a step worse.
Through his 33 games played, Malkin had just eight goals and a 0.4 expected wins above replacement (xWAR). While his xWAR isn’t bad, it also isn’t great for somebody of his caliber, ranking 16th out of 28 players on the Penguins last season, trailing the likes of Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese, and Colton Sceviour.
To make matters worse for Malkin, he re-aggravated his injury in the postseason as he rushed himself in the recovery process, and is now set to miss the beginning of the season, and nobody knows when he could return, and if he’ll ever be close to the same ever again.
While Malkin is gone, Jeff Carter will need to take his spot on the second-line, and while he produced at a point-per-game level during his time with the Penguins after the trade deadline, it will be hard for him to replicate that production without Jared McCann on his wing, who was a huge part of his success.
Tristan Jarry Is Not A Starting Goaltender
I have been saying this for a while, but nobody listened. Tristan Jarry can not be the starting goaltender for a team that is trying to win the Stanley Cup.
Let’s look at the facts. Jarry had a .909 SV% and -8.26 GSAx last season, which are both below league average in their respective statistical categories. Outside of December 2019 where he went on an elite-level run, he has never shown he is a starting goaltender. He only got into the 2020 All-Star Game due to an injury to Joonas Korpisalo, who was originally chosen to go, and after the New Year hit, his numbers went down. Matt Murray actually outperformed in the latter part of the 2019-20 season prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Jarry got the nod in the postseason this year, with Casey DeSmith out with an injury, and he singlehandedly lost the team the series. His terrible puck-playing skills showed flashbacks of early 2010’s Marc-Andre Fleury, and his positioning made you want to rip your hair out after every goal. This was likely the Penguins’ last chance to make a run for their final championship, and he cost them that.
Lots of Expiring Contracts
The Penguins have an absurd number of high-quality players contract’s expiring after this season, as they will need to re-sign Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, Jeff Carter, and Casey DeSmith. With these expiring contracts, it will likely be impossible for the team to make any improvements from what they have right now, next summer.
I believe Malkin will be back, however, I’m skeptical on Letang. If he does depart from the team, is John Marino really good enough to take over the top pairing role? Last year, I would’ve said yes, but after struggling a good chunk of this past season, I am not so sure anymore, at least not good enough to fill the hole that Letang would leave.
Bryan Rust has also become a bonafide top-six forward in Pittsburgh, playing on a line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. If he has another 50+ point season, I think he will get a long-term deal worth at the very least $6M AAV. Can the Penguins afford that? If not, it leaves a huge hole in the top-six.
Obviously, people have been saying this about the Penguins since 2014, and every year they continue to shut their doubters up, but this team just feels different. They went from one of the deepest forward cores to one of the weakest with the losses of Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, and Freddie Gaudreau.
Would I be surprised if the Penguins somehow make the playoffs? Not at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed it either. It’ll be interesting to watch this team this year.