2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
By J.J. Regan, NBCSports.com
Today's team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Notable acquisitions: F Matt Cullen, F Derek Grant, D Jack Johnson
Notable departures: F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, F Conor Sheary, D Matt Hunwick
When they will play the Caps: Oct. 4 in Pittsburgh, Nov. 7 in Washington, Dec. 19 in Washington, March 12 in Pittsburgh.
Offseason recap: The NHL is becoming more and more of a young man's game. While most teams have focused on getting younger, the Penguins seem to be taking a different approach with the signings of the 41-year-old Cullen and the 31-year-old Johnson. Cullen was a key piece for Pittsburgh in both of their 2016 and 2017 Cup runs, but as someone who is set to turn 42 in November, you have to wonder how much he's got left in the tank.
Johnson comes to the Penguins in need of a fresh start after becoming a healthy scratch for the Columbus Blue Jackets late last season. He could prove to be a strong depth add to Pittsburgh's blue line, but his five-year contract is a bit of a head scratcher (who else was offering him five years? Was anyone even offering him four?) To afford Johnson's new contract, the Penguins traded Sheary and Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional fourth-round pick in what can only be described as a salary dump.
Biggest strength: Star power
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin may be the best one, two punch at center in the entire NHL. With those two, plus other star players like Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh always has a shot to make noise in the postseason.
Biggest weakness: Depth
There's no denying Pittsburgh's star talent, but behind those stars, this team looks very thin. In the series against the Caps, Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist combined for 21 points. The rest of the Penguins roster combined for 20 points. Cullen is not going to be enough to turn that around. The depth problem is not limited to offense either as the Penguins look pretty thin on the blue line as well behind Letang.
And let's also not forget there's no Marc-Andre Fleury behind Matt Murray anymore. Murray's save percentage in the playoffs was a pedestrian .908 and there were times when it looked like the Caps had figured him out. Having that goalie tandem was an ace in the hole for the Penguins on their Cup runs that they don't have anymore.
2018-19 season outlook: As noted above, when you have Crosby and Malkin on your team, you still have to be in the conversation as a contender. To make drastic changes to a team that fell short of winning a third straight Stanley Cup would be an overreaction, but their depth was exposed in the playoffs and they fell short of fixing it. In fact, the offense may have taken a step back with the trading away of Sheary. Sheary's production has been inconsistent, sure, but I'm not sure this offense is better with Sheary out and Cullen in.
Pittsburgh needs more from Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard or the offense is going to be too top heavy again. They also need Johnson to prove to be as much of a steal as they hope and Murray to stay healthy and consistent in net.
2018-19 season prediction: The Penguins will finish in the top three of the division and their stars could carry them as far as the conference final. More likely, however, will be a first or second-round exit.