The year 2020 is one that will never be forgotten in the sports world. The NHL and NBA put their seasons on pause, the MLB was unable to start on time, and the NFL had a fully virtual draft. The international spread of Coronavirus has changed the world for the time being, and we await to watch more NHL action.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2019-20 year will be more than just a season cut short due to a pandemic. The season was one that saw a roller coaster ride in net, a long list of injuries, and multiple young stars who reached a new level of play. Looking back, it was a back-and-forth year, but the Penguins found a way to win and qualify for the NHL’s 24-team playoff format.
Since the regular season is effectively over and teams are beginning to look forward to the expanded playoffs, now is the time to take a look back and highlight the most discussed moments and top players for 2019-20.
At a Glance
In the shortened season, the Penguins wrapped up the season after 69 games with a record of 40-23-6. Their 86 points finished third in the Metropolitan Division, and fifth in Eastern Conference based on their .623 points percentage.
The Penguins regular-season leader in points and assists was Evgeni Malkin, finishing with 74 and 49 respectively. Bryan Rust led the Penguins in goals with 27.
There was a lot of talk about the goalie situation for the Penguins this year, and it won’t be slowing down any time soon. Both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray are at the end of their contracts this season and moves will have to be made. As for this season, both goalies picked up 20 wins. Murray finished with 11 losses, five overtime losses, a .899 save percentage, and a 2.87 goals against average. Jarry tallied 12 losses, an overtime loss, a .921 save percentage, and a 2.43 goals against average.
The Injury Bug
Most likely the biggest story of the season was the amount of injuries that piled up for the Penguins. Only two skaters played all 69 games, with Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger managing to avoid missing a game. Jack Johnson did not suffer an injury, but was healthy scratched for a pair of games in the beginning of the season.
Some of the roster’s biggest names, including Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jake Guentzel, all missed big chunks of the season with an array of injuries. Guentzel particularly was on his way to being a team leader in multiple categories, until suffering a separated shoulder.
Crosby missed time after taking a puck to the head, forcing him to wear a jaw protector for a pair of games. He then missed a longer stretch after trying to play through a core muscle injury, ultimately getting surgery in mid-November. Malkin suffered a lower-body injury that put him on the shelf for a month early in the season.
Other key contributors to the squad also saw time on the injured reserve. Kris Letang missed time due to a lower-body injury. Linemate Brian Dumoulin only played 28 games, undergoing ankle surgery in early December.
Many others suffered injuries and the Penguins were completely unable to trot out a fully healthy roster at all this season. Just before the season stoppage, the Penguins were hovering around 300 man-games lost and were leading the league in man-games lost by average ice time of skaters.
That being said, head coach Mike Sullivan was able to stay the course and continue to fill out a winning team, putting him in a great position to be nominated for the Jack Adam’s Award for NHL Coach of the Year.
Between the Pipes
Is it a day that ends in “Y”? Well, then there’s probably a goalie controversy in Pittsburgh. Jarry and Murray both had themselves a season that saw great highs and deep lows. We talked about their stat lines already, but if you look deeper at their play you see both took on bouts with losing, but also the highs of long winning streaks topping out at six-in-a-row.
At the end of the day, Jarry will be given the edge as having the better season. He exceeded expectations and made the All-Star Game. While Murray’s expectations may have been higher, he wasn’t able to reach them.
With the NHL’s new playoff format set, but no set date for return, the conversation between the pipes can swing back to who should start come post-season. Either Jarry or Murray will have to outplay the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price to keep the Penguins playoff streak intact since the two teams will be competing in a play-in round to advance to the playoffs.
Teams change lineups all the time and the Penguins are no different. Before the season began, general manager Jim Rutherford added forwards Brandon Tanev, Dominik Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk, and defenseman John Marino. As the season progressed, some of these names got flipped to bolster the lineup.
Galchenyuk and AHL defenseman Calen Addison were moved to the Minnesota Wild for Jason Zucker. Kahun was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres for Evan Rodrigues and the return of Conor Sheary. A conditional 2021 third-round pick was moved to the San Jose Sharks for veteran forward Patrick Marleau. With the added firepower, the trade deadline was a productive one for the team.
Going forward, Zucker is the only lock to still be in a Penguins’ uniform next season, as his contract runs until the end of the 2022-23 season. In Zucker’s 15 games with Pittsburgh, he showed tremendous promise as a new winger to play alongside Crosby. Zucker posted six goals and six assists with the Penguins, bringing his season total between Pittsburgh and Minnesota to 20 goals and 21 assists.
With the number of injuries to star players, it was prime time for some new names to break into the limelight. New faces had to step up, and some did quite nicely. The aforementioned Tanev and Marino proved they deserve a regular spot in the Penguins lineup.
Tanev only missed one game and finished with 11 goals and 14 assists. Tanev also led the team with 244 hits, which landed him fourth in the league. Marino could have been in the running for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year had it not been for a broken jaw and the season being cut short. Playing in 56 games, Marino was able to record 26 points and play at any spot in the defensive lineup.
It was already known that Guenztel was an elite level goal scorer. Up until his season-ending injury, it looked like he was going to lead the team in goals. Whether he played alongside Malkin or Crosby, Guentzel found ways to put the puck in the net. He scored 20 goals and 23 assists for 43 points in 39 games. Had he not separated his shoulder, he would be a shoo-in for the team’s MVP.
It always seemed like Rust had a scoring touch, but factors would always halt him before reaching a 20-goal season. The 2019-20 season was a career year for Rust in multiple facets. He surpassed 20 goals for the first time in his career and was on his way to a 30-goal season. When the season came to an abrupt end, Rust tallied 27 goals, 29 assists for 56 points in 55 games.
Penguins’ Team Awards
While these may just be one writers’ humble opinion, surely these awards will reflect those in the majority of the fan base.
Best Acquisition (Preseason)
Many moves were made during the season prior to the trade deadline, and the best move made there will be recognized, the handful of offseason additions had a great impact on the season as well. The selection goes to defenseman Marino, a rookie brought in only for a conditional sixth-round pick. Marino himself exceeded expectations and made the team right out of training camp, then going on to excel into one of the top blueliners for the Penguins all season.
Tanev comes in a close second place, as he signed as a free agent from the Winnipeg Jets. Tanev had a great season for a sturdy bottom-six player, but the long-and-hard-to-move contract still has time to rear an ugly side. Time will only tell how the whole contract plays out, but for now, Tanev is a great piece to the team.
Best Acquisition of the Year (Trade Deadline)
Of the three big trades made during the season, all of them have yet to show negative effects. Granted, most of them have yet to play 10 games with the team. Zucker is the easy choice here, not just because he’s got the longer resume in Pittsburgh, but he and Crosby seem to be meshing well on the top line.
Marleau should be fun if he decides to stick around in black and gold. He wants to win a Stanley Cup and he thinks Pittsburgh is a great place to do it in.
Rookie of the Year
Marino for all the reasons mentioned before.
Breakout Player of the Year
There were a few options to pick from. Young guys were stepping up and filling holes all season long. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that Jarry stepped up in the biggest way to keep the team above water. While the Penguins were losing top guys to injury and his counterpart was struggling to keep the puck out of the net, Jarry was there to stop shots and bring home wins. The All-Star goalie found his way into the starting role over Murray, and the fight will rage on over who will hold it going forward. But for this season, Jarry broke out as an elite-level goalie and will remain that way, no matter where he’s playing next season.
An honorable mention should be given to Rust, as he had a career year where he showed his abilities as a goal scorer and playmaker. Over a point-per-game for the first time in his career, he and Malkin seem like a steady pair for the foreseeable future.
He promised a better performance this season, and he delivered. Malkin wasn’t happy with his 2018-19 season and vowed he would be better. Even while missing 14 games, he recorded team-leading numbers. 74 points are only a pair more than what he had last season, but you have to take into account an injury and a short season. He did finish a plus-7 which is far higher than last year’s career-low minus-25. He also led the team in game-winning goals, with five.
If Guentzel didn’t lose his season, there would have been no doubt that he would be the team’s MVP. The same could probably go for Crosby, but unfortunate circumstances surrounded the team this year.
While the final outcome of the 2019-20 season is yet to unfold, the Penguins found ways to continue to be one of the top teams in the league. It took the whole cast of characters, and it may not be over yet. The Penguins are preparing to face off against the Canadiens whenever the NHL gives the thumbs up to return to play.
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.