As we near the start of the 2018-2019 NHL season, we begin this season’s coverage with a look at the five Pittsburgh Penguins under the most pressure this upcoming to succeed.
Some of these Pittsburgh Penguins are looking to prove that they deserve a roster, while others are looking to rebound after a less than ideal season.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Matt Murray
The young goaltender with two Stanley Cups to his name already enters his second full season with the Penguins coming off a tough Second Round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals.
While Matt Murray is far from the only thing to blame for the Penguins eventual defeat, his performance in those playoffs fell below his past exceptional runs. With questions arising about Murray’s glove hand and a full workload, he’s, both rightfully and unfairly, will see considerably pressure this year in net.
Whether Murray succeeds may not be solely a result of how well he plays in-goal, as the defense corps in front of him will have some say in how often he gets hung out to dry, which brings us to the next Penguin on our list.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Jack Johnson
There’s no question that the Penguin’s newest defenseman will start the season under the most scrutiny from fans and management.
To put it lightly, Jack Johnson was the Penguins most controversial signing of the offseason and possibly of GM Jim Rutherford’s tenure at the helm. Not only were fans unhappy with the salary cap hit ($3.25 aav), they were greatly concerned with the term of the contract (5 years).
After a disappointing end to his Blue Jackets career, Johnson comes to Pittsburgh with the hopes that his career can be revived. Sean Leahy (@sean_leahy) over at NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk covers what faces Johnson this season well in his piece, which you can be read here.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Daniel Sprong
Unable to break into the lineup regularly at the end of last season or through the playoffs, but penciled into the lineup by Rutherford during the locker-room cleanup, Sprong enters this season with what appears to be a make or break moment.
Either Daniel Sprong will finally overcome the criticisms that have haunted him during his time with the franchise or he simply won’t make the cut and the Penguins will look elsewhere for secondary scoring on the wings.
It’s assumed, but not a given, that Sprong will see plenty of time alongside a quality center, whether it’s Crosby, Malkin, or Brassard.
Playing with Crosby or Malkin seems like it could present the best opportunity for Sprong, but paired on a line with Brassard and Phil Kessel, while facing the opponent’s least effective defensemen could present him with a true opportunity to shine.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Derick Brassard
Prior to last year’s playoffs, I had argued that the Penguins Should Move Derick Brassard to the Fourth Line.
As you may recall, this was not simply because I didn’t think Brassard was good enough to center the third, but because, at that time, it was costing quality scoring chances and a deeper, more spread out lineup.
This year, it’s a much different story. Brassard will have all of training camp and the early season to mesh well with likely line mate Phil Kessel, hopefully giving the Pittsburgh Penguins three dangerous scoring lines.
If Daniel Sprong is added to the third line as the other winger, Brassard will have two player-options that know how to put the puck on net and should have no troubles when matched against weaker defensive pairings.
If Brassard struggles, there’s a distinct possibility that the Penguins look elsewhere to secure a stronger punch down the middle of their lineup.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Jim Rutherford
It’s difficult to criticize a General Manager of a franchise that has won two out of the last three Stanley Cups. It’s however, not impossible when that GM makes moves that seem to make fans and media alike wonder just what he’s thinking.
At the end of last year, it was clear that Jim Rutherford failed to address multiple holes in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, starting with the defense after the Ian Cole trade. While Matt Hunwick and Chad Ruhwedel battled for the sixth spot, it was clear that neither was an ideal fit for a team that should contend.
When Rutherford jettisoned Conor Sheary and Hunwick to Buffalo this offseason, it was hoped that the Pittsburgh Penguins would use that space to land someone like Jeff Skinner (that would later go to Buffalo in a trade with a minimal return for Carolina).
Instead, Rutherford turned around and confirmed the rumors by signing worn-defenseman Jack Johnson. Beyond just signing Johnson, Rutherford gave him a cap hit that likely wouldn’t have been matched anywhere and an inexplicable term for someone coming off the past few seasons that Johnson has.
Adding to the confusion, Rutherford went forward and signed veteran Matt Cullen, when the Penguins already had four centers slotted for the upcoming season. If the plan is to use Cullen on the wings of the fourth line, it seems like the better option would’ve been Chris Kunitz, who signed for a similar term with Chicago, and naturally plays wing and puts up better numbers than Cullen.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of questions that the Penguins will need to have an answer to this season, or the questions about Rutherford will only continue to grow.