The 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins’ season has seen its highs, lows, and countless injuries. It’s one that also came with many positive changes. The trade deadline has come and gone, and some major additions came to the organization. This team that is currently assembled (disregarding the injuries) is a better Penguins team than those that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
The guys that have been around since those years have improved with age, while the new bodies on the team have served as great replacements.
Two and Three-Time Champions
Starting with the veterans on the ice, they aged like fine wine and have added to their abilities. Forward wise it is easy to see, the two mainstays want nothing more than to improve with every passing game.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both focus on getting better every year and when they are healthy, they hold top spots on the team. It is well documented that Crosby takes his offseason to improve his play. His defensive game has been a focus for him since 2017. While for Malkin, following the 2018-19 season he took it upon himself to improve everywhere he could. He leads the team in points this season.
Patric Hornqvist has gotten a new contract since winning back-to-back championships with the club. He has easily settled in as the Penguins’ net-front, gritty presence, consistently scoring near or over 20 goals a season. They may not be highlight-reel level, but he isn’t slowing down in pace, despite his injury history.
Bryan Rust is in a similar camp as he also received a new contract and has been playing above his abilities while having a career-high in points and goals this season. He may be losing a little momentum, but all it takes is one game and he could be right back in the saddle as the team’s top goalscorer.
The Conor Sheary comeback tour is underway for the Penguins. During his time with the Buffalo Sabres, Sheary put up 53 points in 133 games. In Pittsburgh, he put up 53 points in a single season, so expectations might be for him to return to that kind of form. As a bottom-six forward, he is sure to be an improvement for the team’s depth.
Turning to defense, only three players were on the squad during the back-to-back years, even though one of them was hurt for 41 games of the 2016-17 season and the entirety of the playoffs.
Kris Letang was the one that missed major time with a neck injury. He has since gone on to record 148 points and continues to solidify himself as the best Penguins’ defenseman of all-time. He may have his down moments on the ice, but he always prevails to show that he is the number one defender on this team.
Brian Dumoulin has missed a ton of time this season, but when he is in the lineup he skates alongside Letang on the top pairing. He isn’t a numbers guy but a stay-at-home defenseman that knows the game inside and out. His return from ankle surgery will aid the team tremendously on a back end that has looked weak as of late.
Justin Schultz has seen some decline this season, but they can’t all be slam dunks. In 38 games this season, Schultz has only recorded eight points and has seen his defensive game slip. There is still time for his game to turn around, though, as everyone gets healthy around him.
Goaltending: The most tumultuous topic for Penguins fans. During the 2016 and 2017 Cup seasons, the team boasted two starters in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. This season is not much different. Murray is still here and the All-Star Tristan Jarry is another capable starting goaltender. Both guys want to win and are willing to do whatever it takes to do so.
New Arrivals to Pittsburgh
In the last three seasons, replacements had to be made to bring in new blood. The new faces have, for the most part, been improvements over the old models of before.
Jason Zucker is, in a not so roundabout way, on this team thanks to the departure of Phil Kessel. Zucker is younger and already looks to be more consistent than Kessel, who is having a down year for his standards with the Arizona Coyotes. For the time being, it seems as though he has found a home on Crosby’s wing on the first line.
Related: Wild Trade Zucker to Penguins
The easy comparison for Patrick Marleau is Matt Cullen. Both guys were aging upon their arrival to Pittsburgh, and are coming here with hopes to win a Cup. Marleau has almost 1,200 points in the NHL and the San Jose Sharks let him leave again in hopes he can finally get a well-deserved Stanley Cup.
Evan Rodrigues is hard to get a feel on as he was in and out of the lineup in Buffalo and only recorded nine points. We’ll have to wait and see how this one plays out.
Brandon Tanev has been having himself a great first season with the Penguins. His speed and knack for potting important goals puts him on a similar level as Carl Hagelin. Not only is Tanev not afraid of getting into the dirty areas of the game, his production has cast a shadow over that of Hagelin’s since leaving Pittsburgh.
Teddy Blueger and Nick Bonino may not have a lot in common, but they both play the depth-center role that is vital to a winning team. Numbers may be in Bonino’s favor, but what sets Blueger apart is being a younger and cheaper player who is very serviceable in his position.
Zach Aston-Reese and Tom Kuhnhackl are one and the same in a Penguins’ uniform — a bottom-six winger that is not out there to score loads of points. Speed and defensive play are top priorities for their games, killing penalties and playing the best two-way game possible. For the New York Islanders, Kuhnhackl has been benched and healthy scratched throughout the season, which is not a good look on a team that focuses on defensive play.
Nick Bjugstad has only played 42 regular-season games with this organization, so it has been hard to get a grip on what kind of player he is. Management and the rest of the team speak very highly of the 6-foot-6 center. Much like Carter Rowney, Bjugstad is a forward that fans can’t get a feel for because they’re a depth piece that hasn’t seen much ice time.
Jared McCann came in a package deal with Bjugstad. He was added in on the trade that sent Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to the Florida Panthers. Needless to say, McCann has become the biggest get in that deal. He matches up with a Scott Wilson type, a young player that has the potential to grow. He has just shown far more than Wilson could in Pittsburgh.
Dominik Simon has found a home on Crosby’s wing, much like veteran Chris Kunitz did for years before. Simon may not throw the body or get the same numbers as Kunitz, but he sure is close to it. The Simon, Crosby, and Zucker line has already found great chemistry and will be a joy to watch while they continue to play together.
Not enough can be said about the great season John Marino has been having. When he plays, he’s similar to a more offensively minded Ian Cole. Younger and cheaper than Cole, his 25 points are equal to Cole’s most as a Penguin.
With a fresh contract starting next season, Marcus Pettersson is a blueliner the Penguins expect great things out of. The contract may be worth more than that of Trevor Daley, but Daley is nearing the end of his career and doesn’t possess the same speed and puck-moving abilities that Pettersson can display.
Jack Johnson may not be the most popular player on the team, but he is comparable to Olli Maatta. In this situation, it might just be a comparison of bad apples. He had a poor ending in Pittsburgh, and at least Johnson has improved his play this season.
Jake Guentzel has been an important piece for the team ever since joining in late 2016, as he has already accumulated 200 points in just 243 games.
He only played during the second year of the back-to-back cup run so it would be unfair to compare him to someone who was only here for the first year like Eric Fehr. It is just easy to see that Guentzel is a top contributor to the team when he is healthy.
Stanley Cup Potential
Going forward, things look positive as injured players eye a return and want to contribute to a winning team. If a deep playoff run comes to fruition, expect Guentzel to return to the lineup, as well.
This Penguins’ lineup, when healthy, is a special one and has the ability to pull off another deep playoff run and maybe a sixth Stanley Cup. This team’s talents exceed those of the championship teams prior.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.