Saturday, May 26, 2018

Pool Outlook for Pittsburgh

Winning the Stanley Cup is an impressive feat these days. Winning back-to-back Cups in this era is even more impressive, to say the least. And then... bowing out in the 2nd round of the playoffs to their arch-nemesis of a team in seven games, this close to moving on to another Conference Finals, that's still fairly impressive, given how much hockey the core group of players has played in the last three seasons. No one could be overly disappointed with this result.

The Penguins put together a pretty impressive regular season, finishing 2nd in the Metropolitan Division, after playing all of that extra playoff hockey in the last few years, they really put on a good show.  They were tied for 4th in goals for in the year, making their players great candidates for your hockey pool team, if they weren't already.  Their defense was hit and miss, but they can thank their lucky stars for all of that offense, so it didn't matter too much.

Now, with a couple extra playoff rounds of rest to help heal, the Penguins are striving to be quite the force for another season coming up and really paint that dynasty title all over their franchise once again.  Some may argue that back-to-back wins or even just two wins in three or four years could be tabbed as a franchise, but I don't think I am one of those guys.  I do, however, think they're capable of three in four years, so that's got to mean something, right?

The 2018 season was one hell of a mission for Evgeni Malkin, who really looked like the MVP version of himself in the 2012 season.  Malkin finished with 42 goals and 98 points in 78 games this season and surely would have cracked the 100-point mark, if he played 80 or more games.  In this season though, with all the hockey pool points that were being thrown around, 98 points was only good for 7th overall, 4th among forwards.  By comparison, his 2012 season was 109 points and 1st overall, so he was close, but not quite at his 2012 level.

The Penguins were certainly top-heavy in the scoring department, but they did finish with 12 players on the pool worthiness list this season, including Malkin.  Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby both finished among the top 10 forwards, followed by Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust at the forward position.  Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz didn't light it up this year, but all had quality seasons on the blueline.  In net, Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry each finished within the top 50 keepers, thanks in part to Murray's mid-season injuries, giving Jarry ample time to pick up some wins.  Scoring depth might have been an issue, if there wasn't so many goals being scored at the top of this list.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

About this time last year, I thought it was a lot easier to project the Penguins, because they had a lot more key pieces in place and that's what made them look so appealing at prediction time. This time around, they don't have many pieces on defense signed on, we know they're going to lose Fleury and free agency gets even more difficult with the excitement of Vegas rolling around. Nevertheless, the Penguins do have an experienced core group of veterans, a 2-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender and still some cap room to dabble with, but with the salary cap ceiling not expected to go up by much, it's a tough sell to say they're going to three-peat. The Penguins should find a way to get something back for Fleury before the expansion draft, which should ease the burden, the off-season should atract some help, but that blueline... that will be the make-it or break-it point for this team. Playoffs, sure... success in those playoffs? Seems very doubtful today.

Instead of gaining something for Fleury at the expansion draft, they provided more incentive for Vegas to take Fleury and that has really gone well for the Golden Knights, hasn't it?  With cap problems abound, you can't blame the Penguins for what they had to do.  They did, however, play like they could really have some more playoff success, but over course, they didn't... but they were not very far away.  Was it their defense?  Maybe.  I think it was the expected lack of gas in the tank in the end.

How did my intriguing or breakout player fare?

In last year's playoffs, you really got to know Jake Guentzel and I was really excited to see what he could do in the regular season.  How did he fare?  Well, he was pool worthy... 151st overall, 107th among all forwards, so it wasn't like he was scoring at the rate that he was in the playoffs.  No, he saved that for this year's playoffs, where he was off the charts, 21 points in 12 games and then a pair of game-winners on top of that too.  Maybe he isn't the regular season guy we think he can be, but he can sure turn it on when it counts.

2019 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Evgeni Malkin 9.500 Kris Letang 7.250 Matt Murray 3.750
Sidney Crosby 8.700 Justin Schultz 5.500 Casey DeSmith 0.675
Phil Kessel 6.800 Brian Dumoulin 4.100
Patric Hornqvist 5.300 Olli Maatta 4.083
Carl Hagelin 4.000 Matt Hunwick 2.250
Derick Brassard 3.000 Chris Summers 0.650
Conor Sheary 3.000 Chad Ruhwedel 0.650
Zach Aston-Reese 0.925
Adam Johnson 0.925
Sam Lafferty 0.768
Frederik Tiffels 0.743
Jake Guentzel 0.734
Garrett Wilson 0.650

I don't think you can have a team that has Malkin, Crosby, Kessel, Letang, Schultz and Murray on it and not be shopping for them at next year's hockey pool draft.  This also means that they should probably have some regular season success in 2019 as well, so I would say that their outlook remains fairly strong.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The Penguins will be pinching their pennies again this summer, but they do have a sufficient core group of players, where they could likely get away with that.  The 22-man roster you see above is currently projecting to leave a shade over $1 million in cap space, before the ceiling goes up.  Sure, they could have as much as $6 million to play with, but they might need every penny.

Bryan Rust and Tristan Jarry are the only two pool worthy free agents on the team, both heading to restricted free agency, but they do have some other good prospects, like Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both needing new deals too.

Penguins management has already said that they expect to see Daniel Sprong at the NHL level next season and he'll likely be an impact player.  He is the kind of player that can play in the top six and when you get a centre like Crosby or Malkin, it's hard not to do good things and you do even better, if you have the talent.  Sprong is believed to be this player and you might hear more about him, as we lead up to next year's draft.

Needs at the 2018 Entry Draft
At pick number 22, the Penguins could really do well to improve their blueline, but they can't.  They moved their pick to the Ottawa Senators in the deal that brought over Brassard, so they'll be doing their adds the old fashioned way.  For the Senators, since I have been fairly forward-heavy in the last handful of picks, there could be something good waiting in the wings .  An already hulking defenseman, K'Andre Miller has the potential to be a bruising force in the NHL one day.  Already committed to the University of Wisconsin, Miller will get to work on his overall game at the college level, but with his size, if he can excel there, the Penguins may give him a great chance in only a year or two.

The only thing really stopping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2019 season, from the perspective of being on paper, is the wear and tear of these long hockey seasons.  They didn't get much rest over the last couple of years and they still made a huge push this past year, so a little bit of extra rest could do them some real good.  The Penguins have a lot of the right pieces in all the right places, which is a huge bonus already and if they can bring up some young talent and watch them excel at this level, they could do more damage on the cheap and that should scare a lot of teams in the east.  I like where this team is and I expect them to do very well next season.
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