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Season Preview

Penguins season preview: Malkin being counted on to bounce back

Forward's return to form critical; Galchenyuk not alone replacing Kessel

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

Coach: Mike Sullivan (fifth season)

Last season: 44-26-12; third place Metropolitan Division, lost to New York Islanders in Eastern Conference First Round

 

5 KEYS

 

1. Malkin bouncing back

Evgeni Malkin has said his goal is to prove he still can play at an elite level this season, his 14th in the NHL, following a relatively lackluster 2018-19, when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games. Those numbers, coupled with an NHL career-worst minus-25 rating and Penguins-leading 89 penalty minutes, led him to approach his offseason training more vigorously than usual.

Malkin will slot in at his usual spot as second-line center and on the top power-play unit, and if he returns to form, there will be less pressure on center Sidney Crosby and the first line to carry the load.

Video: Malkin lands at No. 28 on the Top 50 Players list

 

2. Replacing Kessel

Pittsburgh traded forward Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes on June 29 for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

Galchenyuk, who scored 19 goals in each of the past two seasons and an NHL career-high 30 goals with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015-16, has practiced on the second line in training camp and likely will remain there when the Penguins open their season against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 3. But the onus isn't solely on Galchenyuk to replace the production of Kessel, who who had 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in 82 games last season. Instead, the Penguins are counting on more from Malkin, Patric Hornqvist (37 points in 69 games) andNick Bjugstad (14 points in 32 games with Pittsburgh), and a boost from newcomer Dominik Kahun.

 

3. Choosing power-play personnel

Pittsburgh has experimented with several combinations on the top power-play unit in training camp, partially to make up for the loss of Kessel, who tied Crosby for the Penguins lead with 12 power-play goals last season. 

Among the forwards auditioning to play on the top unit with Crosby and Malkin are Jake Guentzel, Galchenyuk and Hornqvist.

However, allowing fewer shorthanded goals might be as important as scoring goals on the power play.

After tying the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks for the fewest allowed in the NHL in 2017-18 (three), the Penguins were tied with the Boston Bruins for the most shorthanded goals-against last season (15). As a result, they're considering using two defensemen, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz, on the top unit.

Video: CBJ@PIT: Galchenyuk buries Guentzel's dish for PPG

 

4. New faces in prominent places

In addition to acquiring Galchenyuk, the Penguins got Kahun in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on June 15 for defenseman Olli Maatta and a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and signed forward Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract July 1. Each has seen time in the top-six forward group during training camp. 

Sullivan is quick to overhaul lines that are failing to produce, so there's no guarantee Galchenyuk, Kahun or Tanev will stick in the top six, but each is being given a chance to earn a spot playing on a line with either Crosby or Malkin.

 

5. Guentzel looking for more

Guentzel made a name for himself when he had 21 points in each of his first two Stanley Cup Playoff appearances (2017, 2018), but his stock soared last season when he had NHL career highs in goals (40) and points (76) playing primarily on the first line with Crosby. Because of his talent and the chemistry he's built with Crosby, Guentzel could reach 50 goals this season.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

 

Making the cut

For the most part, the Penguins roster seems set. It's just a matter of where everyone falls into place.

The one battle could be between forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, who have rotated at fourth-line left wing throughout camp. Teddy Blueger will take over at fourth-line center for Matt Cullen, who retired, and either Kahun or Bryan Rust will play to his right.

Aston-Reese, who played 59 games for Pittsburgh the past two seasons, approaches the game with a similar physicality to Hornqvist. Simon, who's played 109 games for the Penguins in four seasons, including 71 in 2018-19, is a more skilled offensive player and has garnered rave reviews from Sullivan for his play on Crosby's line in the past. Those two could rotate in the lineup early in the season depending on how Sullivan wants to approach a particular matchup.

 

Most intriguing addition

Galchenyuk, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2020, has a lot riding on this season and is expected to produce on the second line with Malkin. That means he needs to be better than his 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) in 72 games with the Coyotes last season.

Video: Top five plays of 2018-19: Galchenyuk

 

Biggest potential surprise

When Tanev signed, most expected he would be a fixture in Pittsburgh's bottom-six forward group. To see him on the second line with Malkin early in camp was unexpected, but the Penguins seem to like the dynamic of his physicality and speed paired with the offensive instincts of Malkin and Galchenyuk.

 

Ready to break through

As a rookie with the Blackhawks last season, Kahun had 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 82 games. Playing next to Crosby could do for him what it has done for Guentzel, or Conor Sheary before him. Crosby has typically elevated those on his line, dating to when he played center between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, so it wouldn't be shocking to see Kahun's numbers rise significantly if he plays on the same line with Pittsburgh's captain.

 

Fantasy Sleeper

Galchenyuk (average draft position: 173.6) could return to 30-goal form on a line with the elite Malkin, making him worth drafting in late rounds. -- Rob Reese

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Dominik Kahun

Alex Galchenyuk -- Evgeni Malkin -- Brandon Tanev

Jared McCann -- Nick Bjugstad -- Patric Hornqvist

Zach Aston-Reese -- Teddy Blueger -- Bryan Rust

Brian Dumoulin -- Kris Letang

Marcus Pettersson -- Justin Schultz

Jack Johnson -- Erik Gudbranson

Matt Murray

Casey DeSmith

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