The window could be closing on the core of the Pittsburgh Penguins. At least, that’s going to be the storyline coming from most with their most recent first-round exit at the hands of the New York Islanders in just six games.
While some will argue that the aging core could be on the downslope of their opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, the argument could be made that they are just a few pieces away from making another run – including in net.
Still, the six-game series couldn’t have been easy for fans of the Penguins, but it gives the organization a little extra time to figure things out before the 2021-22 season gets underway – particularly when it comes to those holes in the lineup.
Penguins Lose Some to the Cold Offseason
Nick Bjugstad. Alex Galchenyuk. Patric Hornqvist. Patrick Marleau. Those names along with guys like Jack Johnson, Dominik Kahun, Matt Murray, Conor Sheary and Stefan Noesen all saw their names removed from the Penguins roster when it was posted for the 2020-21 season.
In reality, the only main acquisition for the Penguins in 2020-21 came at the deadline when they acquired veteran forward Jeff Carter in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick. But even that could help get this core over the hump to make a deep playoff run.
Add that to the number of players that had to spend some time on the NHL’s COVID protocol list and the injuries to Jared McCann, John Marino, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev and it’s almost as if fate was playing against the Penguins all season long. But that’s all dependent on how you want to look at it.
That said, the season wasn’t a total disappointment for the Penguins.
Penguins Finish Atop the East
They finished ahead of the Islanders, ahead of the Boston Bruins and ahead of the Washington Capitals. In fact, they finished atop the NHL’s MassMutual East Division tied for points with the Capitals, with one extra win. They finished with a 37-16-3 record in 56 games and 77 points to show for it.
They had a division-best goal differential of plus-40 and a 22-4-2 record at home. Essentially, things were looking pretty promising for the Penguins heading into the playoffs against the fourth-seeded Islanders. But that’s the beauty of the NHL today – the parity within the league.
As always, the Penguins were led by a quiet 62 points from Sidney Crosby, who played 55 games, while Jake Guentzel finished behind him with 57 points in 56 games. As for goals, they had three players score over 20 goals (Crosby, Guentzel and Bryan Rust) and five in double-digits (McCann and Kasperi Kapanen).
In net, with the departure of Murray, the majority of the games fell on the shoulders of Tristan Jarry. He played 39 games for the Penguins this season and finished with an impressive 25-9-3 record, a .909 save percentage (SV%) and 2.75 goals against average (GAA).
Casey DeSmith backed him up all year and got into 20 games with a .912 SV% and a 2.54 GAA, while Maxime Lagace won the only game he got into with a 29-save shutout. All in all, the Penguins’ goaltending combined for five shutouts on the season.
But something changed come playoff time. Whether it was missing Evgeni Malkin or the defensive play of the Islanders, the offensively talented Penguins couldn’t get it done.
Penguins Left on the Island
Newcomer Carter led the way in the postseason for the Penguins with four goals, while Kris Letang finished with a goal and six points in their six games. Even Malkin came back and collected five points in the four games he played in, but it simply wasn’t enough.
Crosby tallied just one goal and one assist, as did Guentzel and the Islanders crippled the Penguins overall offence and suffocated their play with their defensive structure.
Jarry didn’t seem the same either in the playoffs. And while you can’t put the full blame on the goaltender, Jarry gave up 21 goals in just six games to an Islanders team known for their defensive play under coach Barry Trotz. He finished with an .888 SV% and a 3.18 GAA – far from what he put up in the regular season.
While Malkin did miss a couple of games due to injury, the sheer lack of offence is what buried this team in their opening-round series. Credit should be given to Islanders as well as they were able to turn their defensive dominance into offensive output as well, defeating the number one team in their division this season.
Laid to Rest – Final Thoughts
The core of Malkin, Crosby and Letang won’t be able to go on another run without a strong supporting cast. That’s simple. But Letang made it known in his post-season press conference that one thing is for sure. All three want to finish their careers with the Penguins.
So what does that mean? Well, Guentzel is making $6 million until the end of 2023-24. Jason Zucker is making $5.5 million until the end of 2022-23 and has a modified no-trade clause. And Michael Matheson is also cashing in at $4.875 million until the end of 2025-26.
What that means is that there isn’t a lot of room for spending – especially if the cap remains at a stand-still for the next three to five years like some assume it will. If this core is to stick together, the Penguins will have to find success from within the organization.
Regardless, the team has some time to think about it ahead of 2021-22. Until then, Penguins fans, rest in passion and good luck next season.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.