A rough month of November gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a scare, but it seems they’re going to be okay. As they head into their final game of the 2018 calendar year against the Minnesota Wild, they are on a five-game winning streak. For the month of December, the Penguins sit at 10-3-2.
Their recent run didn’t begin smoothly though. They blew an early two-goal lead against the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 17, en-route to a 4-2 loss in Daniel Sprong’s first game back in Pittsburgh following the Dec. 3 trade in for Marcus Pettersson.
They shook it off quickly though. The Penguins’ 2-1 victory against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 19 may prove to be the turning point of their season. It always brings out the best in both teams when they match up, but this one was different. It was an emotional win over their heated rivals, highlighted by Pettersson’s dive on the goal line to take away a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The Penguins then closed out their final two games before the NHL’s Christmas break with 2-1 and 3-0 victories over the Wild and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively. They returned from the break with some big news on Thursday as they announced a five-year, $30-million contract extension for Jake Guentzel prior to their game against the Detroit Red Wings.
They proceeded to defeat the Red Wings 5-2 as Phil Kessel scored twice and Matt Murray stopped 29-of-31 shots. The Penguins concluded their week on Saturday night against the Blues and were led to a 6-1 victory by Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Kessel’s three-point night.
It’s been two weeks since the last Penguins Pulpit, so there’s a lot to talk about. In focus this week are Guentzel’s contract extension, Murray rounding into form after returning from injury and what the team should do with Derick Brassard.
2018-19 Record: 20-12-6, 46 points (3rd in Metropolitan Division, 6th in Eastern Conference, 10th in League Standings)
Guentzel Cashes in on Success
In case you haven’t heard, the Penguins signed Guentzel to a five-year extension on Thursday afternoon, avoiding a potential William Nylander-type standoff with their young star in the summer. The 24-year-old was slated to become a restricted free agent on July 1, but with the extension, he’ll remain with the Penguins through the 2023-24 season.
It was a wise decision as the upcoming RFA class includes names such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Timo Meier and Brock Boeser, which could’ve increased Guentzel’s price tag by millions.
Guentzel, the 77th overall pick of the 2013 Entry Draft, has 16 goals and 34 points in 38 games this season and 54 goals and 115 points in 160 career games since joining the Penguins during the 2016-17 season. He’s also had well-documented success over his first two playoff runs, which includes a Stanley Cup in 2017, recording 23 goals and 42 points in 37 postseason games.
He has clearly earned his payday. When you consider what he brings to the team, it looks good on the Penguins’ side of affairs, too. Guentzel’s a scoring winger who isn’t a product of his teammates, excels when it matters most and makes their best player, Crosby, better. Of course, playing with Crosby helps player’s numbers, but Guentzel is a legitimate top-line winger, something rarely said about Crosby’s linemates over his 14 seasons.
Playing with the future Hall-of-Famer requires a number of things, but the most important traits are speed and a high hockey IQ, which Guentzel possesses. This season, the two have combined for 33 goals and 80 points, have scored or assisted together on 22 goals and have combined for primary points — goal plus first assist — on 11 of them.
When considering the other 14 skaters scheduled to count for $6 million against the cap next season, it makes Guentzel’s contract look even better. The others are Kyle Turris, Brandon Saad, Taylor Hall, Filip Forsberg, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kyle Okposo, Loui Eriksson, Nikolaj Ehlers, David Backes, Jordan Staal, Johnny Boychuk, Matt Dumba and Erik Johnson.
Guentzel may well be a top-three player on that list, and at worst he’s in the top-five of those names. He’ll also be the second-youngest name on the list behind Ehlers (23 years old) and tied with Forsberg (25 years old), so there’s a lot of future value with this contract. Guentzel has another season or two worth of growth left, and with the cap increasing each season, it has the potential to be one of the more team-friendly contracts in the league by the time he enters his prime.
With Letang, Kessel and Evgeni Malkin scheduled to become free agents after the 2021-22 season, the Penguins will look different at the end of Guentzel’s contract than they do now. Even if all three are extended, Malkin will be 36 in 2022, and Letang, Kessel and Crosby will 35 years old. Meanwhile, Guentzel won’t turn 30 until Oct. 6, 2024, three months after his contract expires, so he’ll be relied on heavily over the next five seasons.
Entering next season as the fifth-highest paid player on the team, Guentzel is now a long-term core piece of a Penguins roster that’ll look to add one more Cup before the book closes on the era of Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kessel.
Murray Looks to Be Back to Form
It’s been written about a few times this season, but it could be happening this time. Is Murray finally getting back to his old self? His performance since returning from a month-long injury absence seems to point towards it.
After losing Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft, the Penguins’ crease belonged to Murray entering the 2017-18 season. Dealing with injuries and personal tragedy, he posted a 27-16-3 record with a .907 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.92 goals-against average (GAA) in 49 games (45 starts).
Things somehow got worse at the beginning of this season. Through his first 11 starts, Murray was 4-5-1 with an .877 SV%, a 4.08 GAA and one shutout. He was pulled in three of those games, posted a sub-.900 SV% eight times and allowed three or more goals eight times. He also missed 12 days due to a concussion in early October.
A few days after allowing three goals on 10 shots against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 17, Murray was ruled out ‘longer-term’ with a lower-body injury. He returned on Dec. 15 against the Los Angeles Kings and has been a different goalie since.
In five starts since returning, he has gone 5-0-0, posted one shutout, allowed seven goals and stopped 165-of-172 shots for a .959 SV% and a 1.38 GAA. His recent success has helped him improve to a 9-5-1 record with a .906 SV%, a 3.14 GAA and two shutouts for the season. While the numbers are getting better, it’s not the only thing that’s improved since his return.
Murray looks quicker, more comfortable, more confident and more positionally-sound than he has at any point over the last two seasons. He has made a number of saves on dangerous shots since his return, including Andre Schevnikov’s one-timer from in the crease against Carolina, Frans Nielsen’s one-timer from 10 feet away on Thursday and Jaden Schwartz’s backhander on Saturday. With each passing game, it’s become obvious he wasn’t healthy to begin the season.
Head coach Mike Sullivan praised Murray’s play following the Penguins’ win on Saturday.
#Pens HC Sullivan on Murray: "He's been great. He's been so solid since he's come back off the injury. He's made timely saves for us. When we got up a few goals in that 2nd period we stopped skating. They took it to us pretty good. … Matt was there in that 2nd period." -SK
— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) December 30, 2018
The puck has hit the post a few times, but posts are missed shots whether there’s a goalie in the net or not. Murray’s stopping the pucks that could go in, so to point out the ones that weren’t going in is looking for non-existent issues.
Five games is a relatively small sample size, but the results can’t be ignored. He’s going to have the bad start on occasion, but Murray seems to be getting closer to the form which helped make him a two-time Cup champion. If he truly has returned to form, the Penguins are going to be difficult to beat over the last four months of the season.
Penguins Have to Stay Course with Brassard
To say the Brassard trade hasn’t worked out for the Penguins would be an understatement. When he was acquired from the Senators in February for Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a 2019 third round pick and a 2018 first round pick, the Penguins were expecting a second line center for their third line. Instead, they’ve gotten an underachieving third line center on the third line.
In 29 games this season, Brassard has six goals and 12 points, although three of those points have come in the last two games. In 43 games since being acquired, he has nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points. Those numbers aren’t bad for a player who’s a third line center. However, when you give up a first round pick and a top goalie prospect for those numbers, they need to be better.
It’s not like his play has warranted different results, though. He’s looked good some nights, but generally he hasn’t been noticeable on the ice. The Penguins have tried him with a number of different wingers, including Kessel and Guentzel. He even briefly played on Crosby’s line, but nothing has gotten him going.
He’s having the worst possession season of his career as well. In 329:55 at five-on-five, Brassard has a career-worst Corsi for percent of 45.5, Fenwick for percent of 45.6, shots for percent of 44, and scoring chances for percent of 43.5. He has 11 teammates with better possession numbers away from him, compared to five who have positive numbers with him. Despite his struggles, Sullivan still believes in Brassard and thinks he can turn it around.
I know he’s had his ups and downs. I believe in him. I think he’s a really good player. I think he’s a unique player. I think he’s a guy who can make this team a pretty tough team to play against. (From ‘Mike Sullivan on Derick Brassard: “I believe in him”‘ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 12/27/18)
To be fair to Brassard, his ice time in Pittsburgh (15:18 per game) is just under two and a half minutes less than what it was over his six seasons with the Senators (17:47) and New York Rangers (17:00). He also plays on the second power play unit, which doesn’t get many chances with a first unit of Patric Hornqvist, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang.
It’s shown with just three power play points during his tenure with the Penguins, compared to 12 with Ottawa and 62 with New York. It makes it more important for Brassard to take care of business at even strength against favorable matchups. It’s only too late to turn it around when there are no games left to be played. He still has over half a season left to prove himself to the Penguins’ front office and increase his value as he heads into free agency this summer.
If he can’t turn it around before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, the Penguins may have to re-enter the market for a third line center a few months earlier than they had hoped. Players who could potentially be available are the Senators’ Matt Duchene, the Rangers’ Kevin Hayes and the St. Louis Blues’ Brayden Schenn.
That’s about it when it comes to centers better than Brassard. The problem is that all three would get a bigger return than what the Penguins could provide. And general manager Jim Rutherford would have to be even more creative than he was with the original Brassard trade.
For that reason, along with the fact that he has a long track record, the Penguins need to stay the course with Brassard and hope he can find his game in the second half. If he returns to form and helps the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup in four seasons, his poor start with the team will quickly be forgotten.
What’s Up Next
12/31/18: @ Minnesota Wild
1/2/19: @ New York Rangers
1/4/19: vs Winnipeg Jets
Leading scorer since 12/17/18: Sidney Crosby, 11 points (two goals, nine assists)
Three Stars since 12/17/18
- Sidney Crosby
- Matt Murray
- Kris Letang
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.