After last week’s abysmal showing which saw them drop to last place in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins began this week looking to dig themselves out of an early hole for the second consecutive season.
With a record of 1-6-1 (three points) in their first eight games of the month heading into this week, the Penguins doubled their win and point total in November with victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars, along with overtime losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. By capturing six of eight points, the Penguins have brought themselves to within three points of a playoff spot.
On Monday night, it looked like the Penguins were going to beat the Sabres, but they ended up blowing a 4-1 lead in the last half of regulation before ultimately losing 5-4 in overtime on a goal from Jack Eichel. On Wednesday night, Sidney Crosby returned from a three-game absence and immediately made an impact, recording three points in a 5-1 victory over the Stars.
On Friday night, the Penguins’ quest for consecutive wins for the first time since they won four in a row from Oct. 18-27 was thwarted by Jaroslav Halak and the Bruins who defeated the Penguins 2-1 in overtime. They got back on track on Saturday night, though, as Jake Guentzel’s first career hat trick propelled the team to a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jackets.
It was a step in the right direction for the Penguins as they look to turn their season around. This week’s edition of Penguins Pulpit looks at the team getting Crosby back and having their top three centers healthy, Guentzel’s hot week and future contract, and questions about the future of Daniel Sprong.
2018-19 Record: 9-8-5, 23 points (sixth in Metropolitan Division, 11th in Eastern Conference, 21st in league standings)
Crosby Returns, Penguins Reap the Benefits
After missing three games with an upper-body injury, Crosby returned on Wednesday night and showed no ill-effects, recording five points — one goal, four assists — in three games this week. The five-point week brings his season total to 24 points — nine goals, 15 assists — in 19 games.
It’s fair to say Crosby had a number of highlight reel plays this week, too. For his lone goal, Crosby blew by Esa Lindell then put on a display of top-end edgework and puck protection before kicking the puck to his stick off the rebound and putting it past Anton Khudobin to put the Penguins up 3-0 on the Stars.
Against the Blue Jackets, he fired a no-look, backhand pass to Guentzel, who slapped it past Joonas Korpisalo to put the Penguins up 2-1. Later in the game, Crosby embarrassed another Finnish defenseman Markus Nutivaara, with his edgework and delivered another backhand pass to Guentzel, who put it home for his second of the night.
Clearly, the Penguins are significantly better with him in the lineup than without him. Just how good are they, though?
With Crosby back in the fold, the Penguins had their top three centers of Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard and Crosby together in the lineup for the first time since Oct. 25, and it paid immediate dividends. In three games together this week, the Penguins scored 10 goals (3.4 goals per game). For the season, the Penguins have scored 45 goals in the 11 games (4.1 per game) where all three centers have been in the lineup, compared to 29 goals in 11 games (2.63 per game) without one or more of them out of the lineup.
With all three active, the Penguins have failed to pick up a point only one time as they hold a record of 7-1-3 (a 127-point pace over 82 games). While missing at least one of them, the team is 2-7-2 (a 45-point pace over 82 games.) The Penguins are likely to play closer to a 127-point pace over the rest of the season if Crosby, Malkin, and Brassard are able to stay healthy.
The Penguins are in a position, that when healthy, they have a first-line center (Malkin) playing on the second line and a second-line center (Brassard) playing on the third line. It creates matchup difficulties for opponents all over the ice. A team matching up their top forward line and defensive pair against Crosby’s line has to mix and match to try and contain Malkin’s and Brassard’s lines.
It’s easy to forget a majority of the Penguins’ struggles have come when they’re down a center. With a full complement of pivots now available, there should be some stability brought to the lineup. Especially to the bottom-six, where Brassard’s absence forced Riley Sheahan to handle a top-nine role and it impacted the offense. It should also help the team get back on track as they look to dig themselves out of an early hole for the second consecutive season.
Guentzel’s Hot Week and Looking Toward His Next Contract
After scoring five goals in the first eight games of the season, Guentzel went quiet; scoring just one goal over his next 10 outings. Guentzel exploded for five goals and six points this week; capping it off with his first career regular season hat trick on Saturday night. For the season, the 24-year-old has 18 points — 11 goals, seven assists — in 22 games.
If the Penguins are going to rebound from their poor start, they need Guentzel to continue scoring. After last season’s 22-goal, 48-point regular season, Guentzel’s firmly entrenched as a secondary piece for the Penguins and will be expected to improve on those numbers in his second full season.
For Guentzel, more weeks like this will help him both on and off the ice. On the ice, it’ll help him avoid repeats of long, unproductive stretches like he had last season: which included four goals in 28 games from Dec. 1, 2017, to Feb. 3, 2018, and two goals in 20 games from Feb. 23 until the end of the season. Traditionally, players tend to have more success over an 82-game schedule if they can limit their struggles throughout the season. It’ll also help Guentzel keep his spot alongside Crosby, as they appear to have successfully carried their postseason chemistry over into the regular season. As the story goes, the more time beside Crosby, the better chance a player has to produce.
This type of performance will also help Guentzel maximize the contract he gets this offseason. Barring an offer sheet — which hasn’t been used since the Calgary Flames signed Ryan O’Reilly to a two-year, $10-million offer sheet in 2013—Guentzel’s restricted free agent status means he’s only trying to drive up his dollar value with the Penguins. He’s likely proven too much to be a candidate for a bridge deal and is a bit too old for one since he’ll be 25 next season, so Guentzel’s eyeing a long-term deal. If he can get close to the 41-goal, 67-point season he’s on pace for, he could push for an AAV north of $5.75-million.
A similar contract to what Guentzel may get is Jaden Schwartz’s five-year, $26.75-million deal signed back in July of 2016 with the St. Louis Blues. At the time Schwartz signed, he was 24, had 157 points in 240 games and his deal took up 7.33 percent of a $73-million cap.
When Guentzel signs, he’ll be 24 with projected totals of 148 points in 204 games. The cap for the 2019-20 season isn’t known yet, though Elliotte Friedman said in a 31 Thoughts column back in October, it’s projected to be between $81.4 million and $85.4 million. If the cap ends up being at the low-end; 7.33 percent of $81.4 million would give Guentzel an AAV of $5.96 million. If it’s the high end, 7.33 percent of $85.4 million would peg Guentzel at an AAV of $6.25 million, meaning the total value of his contract could range anywhere between $29.8-million and $31.2-million if it’s a five-year deal.
The bottom line: Re-signing Guentzel is going to come at a cost. But the Penguins will happily pay it if he continues being a productive player.
Figuring Out What to Do With Sprong
Talking about Sprong has become a weekly event in Penguins Pulpit because there’s no clear idea as to what the Penguins want to do with him. Will they give him more playing time? Scratch him? Or maybe trade him?
After scoring 65 points — 32 goals, 33 assists — in 65 games in the AHL last season, Sprong received praise from general manager Jim Rutherford throughout the offseason. It looked like he’d be an important piece of the 2018-19 Penguins, but two months in, his days with the organization seem to be numbered.
Through his 16 games, Sprong has recorded four assists and 16 shots on goal while averaging 8:34 of ice time (TOI) per night. His average TOI is the least among Penguins who’ve dressed for at least 10 games this season. Sprong’s also only played more than ten minutes just five times this season.
Sprong opened training camp on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel but underwhelmed in practices and exhibition action. He was relegated the fourth line to open the season, and it’s been a hole he’s had trouble digging out of.
A player with Sprong’s skill set, which includes a quick, accurate release and smooth skating abilities, can’t succeed as a fourth-liner. But he hasn’t done himself any favors when he’s on the ice. Because of his role, the coaches have tried changing his offensive-minded approach into a responsible, two-way game, and they aren’t getting the desired results.
Sprong often finds himself glued to the bench late in close games or if he’s on the ice for a goal against. There are two prime examples of the latter. In the Penguins’ 6-5 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 23. Sprong saw minimal ice time after the early part of the second period after he was overpowered along the boards by Alex Chaisson, who proceeded to score, giving the Oilers a 2-1 advantage at the time. Sprong played just 3:37 that night. The second example happened on Friday. He was caught puck watching, which assisted in allowing Jake DeBrusk to score the game-tying goal in the second period. Sprong’s TOI for the night was 4:18.
It’s important to hold players accountable, but the 21-year-old is being singled out among his peers. Jack Johnson has made a number of costly mistakes and is rewarded with an average TOI of 19:37, fourth-most among all Penguins. Matt Cullen and Sheahan haven’t been good in any particular area and are playing 11:46 and 13:17 per night, respectively. Sprong is a more talented player than those three players but he’s the only one who’s punished for his mistakes. Knowing he’s one misplay away from riding the bench causes him to play scared, which doesn’t help him or the Penguins.
The Penguins’ hands are tied with Sprong, though. They don’t want to play him in a role where he would be more likely to succeed, and the coach doesn’t like his game. But he can’t be scratched every night or be assigned to the AHL to get playing time without clearing waivers.
At this point, a trade is in the best interests of both parties. For Sprong, it would give him a fresh start in another organizations top-nine. For the Penguins, it would open a roster spot for a player better suited to play fourth line minutes and be productive.
While there are questions around Sprong’s future, the Penguins having a full complement of centers, along with Guentzel’s hot streak, have the team on the right track as they try returning to relevancy.
What’s Up Next
11/27/18: @ Winnipeg
11/28/18: @ Colorado
12/1/18: vs Philadelphia
Leading scorer of the week: Jake Guentzel: six points (five goals, one assist)
Three Stars of the Week
- Jake Guentzel: six points, hat-trick
- Sidney Crosby: five points (one goal, four assists)
- Kris Letang: five points (five assists)
Conner McTague is a recent graduate of the Journalism program at Durham College. He covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. He hopes to make a career out of sports reporting.