After a disappointing end to the 2018-19 campaign, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a major shakeup this offseason. Key pieces of recent championship rosters were shipped out for younger forwards as the team looks to keep its window of competition open for a bit longer. With so many fresh faces in the lineup, which Penguins will have the biggest impact on this season’s success?
Team MVP: Matt Murray
Of course, the easy answer here would be Sidney Crosby, but everyone knows what he’s capable of and what the expectations are for his performance. If the Penguins are going to make a deep playoff run this season, it’s going to be Matt Murray leading the charge from the goal crease. Expectations have been high for the 25-year-old ever since he led Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cup wins before finishing his official rookie campaign. However, over the last two seasons, he’s recorded an underwhelming .913 save percentage (SV%) and 2.80 goals against average (GAA) across 99 games.
Murray will become a restricted free agent after this season, giving him even more reason to step up and earn a sizable raise from his current $3.75 million cap hit. He showed flashes of it last season; during a nine-game winning streak from Dec. 15 to Jan. 11, Murray allowed just 14 goals while recording a .953 SV%. The Ontario native will need to find more consistency but could quickly become one of this team’s bright spots once again.
Best Newcomer: Alex Galchenyuk
The Penguins revamped their forward group this offseason and are expecting major contributions out of all of them. But when you’re the main piece coming back in a trade involving Phil Kessel, you better make some noise with your new team. Alex Galchenyuk will fill in on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin. The third-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, his goal-scoring touch and flexibility in the lineup will allow him to be a key piece to Pittsburgh’s success this season.
Kessel averaged 28 goals and over 81 points over the last three seasons. During that same span, Galchenyuk averaged just over 18 goals and 45 points. He won’t replace all of Kessel’s production but skating next to Malkin should boost his numbers. The 25-year-old could notch at least 25 goals and 55 points in his first season as a Penguin.
Team Scapegoat: Jack Johnson/Brandon Tanev
It’s not Jack Johnson’s fault that he signed an egregious contract last offseason. His five-year, $16.25 million deal was a head-scratcher at the time and he didn’t do much to combat those doubts with a brutal 2018-19 campaign. The 32-year-old blueliner scored 1 goal and 13 points in 82 games. He also managed to drop Crosby’s Corsi percentage by over seven points while they were together on the ice. In three postseason contests, Johnson averaged just 15:21 of ice time after logging over 19 minutes per game during the regular season.
The writing is on the wall for Johnson to be a healthy scratch more often than not this season. He’ll still be taking up a $3.25-million cap hit and will still be the first one that fans point the finger at when the team is struggling, even if he isn’t on the ice. However, Brandon Tanev could take that crown if he also fails to meet the expectations of his contract while Johnson sits. Again, you can’t blame him for accepting the ludicrous six-year, $21-million offer from the Penguins, but if the secondary scoring struggles to formulate, the blame will naturally fall on Tanev’s shoulders.
Most Improved: Evgeni Malkin
Despite maintaining his status as one of the NHL’s best forwards, Malkin has to rebound from arguably his worst season to date. Scoring 72 points in 68 games would be a career year for nearly any NHL forward, but as a future Hall of Famer, the 33-year-old has a higher standard to live up to. His 21 goals were the fewest he’s ever scored in a season where he played at least 45 games. Malkin also registered a minus-25 rating, by far the worst of his career.
Even when he was on the ice, it was clear that Malkin wasn’t 100 percent healthy for most of last season. Often times he was slow and took too many risks to make up for it, ultimately giving the puck away a career-high 84 times. With a new linemate in Galchenyuk and a rigorous offseason of training, the Russian All-Star is in line to bounce back in a big way for the Penguins during the 2019-20 campaign.
Fan Favorite: Marcus Pettersson
On the flip side of the Jack Johnson ordeal is who could replace him in the lineup. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin will take the top pairing minutes as they have for years now while Marcus Pettersson should be the top option to buddy-up with Justin Schultz on the second pair. The lanky, 6-foot-3 Swede would benefit greatly from this new role and see an increase in his ice time after averaging nearly 18 minutes per game with Pittsburgh last season.
Pettersson was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Daniel Sprong last season and was pretty impressive for most of the season. He scored a pair of goals and 19 points with a plus-13 rating and a 51.7 Corsi percentage in 57 games with Pittsburgh. More impressively, he managed those numbers while spending most of his time paired with Johnson or Erik Gudbranson. Slotting Pettersson next to Schultz should unlock a new level of offense for the 23-year-old and have fans chanting his name in the stands.
Nearly every team in the Metropolitan Division improved this offseason and the Penguins are hoping they aren’t an exception. After being swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of last season’s playoffs, the team knows its time with Malkin and Crosby won’t last forever. However, an offseason of seemingly smart trades might get the Penguins deep into the playoffs once again.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.