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Penguins Have Plenty of Reasons for Optimism

The group that Jim Rutherford has assembled looks terrific heading into the 2020-21 season

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Penguins training camp opened on Jan. 10 to much more excitement and anticipation than usual after a long wait for hockey to return. 

General manager Jim Rutherford had been busy in the previous months re-tooling the roster in order to continue competing for Stanley Cups, with the approach being to surround the core leadership group with more youth, enthusiasm and most importantly, speed. He felt good about the group that he had assembled, saying he was both excited and nervous to see how it would come together.

Well, after a week-plus of practices and intra-squad scrimmages, the pieces appear to be fitting together nicely.

The Penguins look faster, the core leadership and supporting cast around them look rested and recharged, the new additions are fitting in and Tristan Jarry has been terrific as he prepares to be the Penguins' No. 1 netminder. They're looking forward to getting starting on Wednesday in Philadelphia with this team.

"My sense is that these guys are completely invested in this experience, and that's what's necessary to win in this league," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "Now, the journey begins. And for me, that's the best part. It's the most rewarding. And this is a tough challenge. We know it. I think we're prepared for it. And we just have to trust one another and rely on one another and stay in the moment, which is the most important thing. We'll see where it takes us. But we like the group that we've assembled here. And we're excited about the opportunity that's in front of us, but we understand that we've got to go out and earn each and every point."

Here's a more in-depth look at some of the reasons for optimism heading into the 2020-21 season.

"I THINK WE GOT A LOT FASTER": The consensus among the players is that they're now a quicker team, which has them excited. Obviously, the Penguins have a lot of players who are blessed with foot speed. Some were already in the organization, and some are new this year. But what's really stood out thus far is just the overall pace of play.

"As far as what I'm excited about, I think it's our speed," Marcus Pettersson said. "I think you can see in our last few scrimmages here. We're really picking up the pace, so I think that's going to be a big factor this year."

It's a credit to the coaching staff and the players that they got on the same page so quickly despite having a condensed training camp and no exhibition games, because the Penguins have done a tremendous job of playing as a five-man unit. Six, if you count Tristan Jarry's phenomenal puck-handling ability.

That's been particularly evident in their breakouts. Pettersson said it starts with the defensemen not holding onto the puck too long and, as he put it, "not going D-to-D five times," so that they can hit the forwards in stride and keep them from slowing down.

"When you have good execution, you don't have to always look back," Letang said. "It's one of the most important things (for playing fast). If you play a collective game with five guys all the time, you have support everywhere, it's a lot easier to get up the ice."

The Penguins' identity has always revolved around speed, but they are constantly looking to evolve and adjust in that regard. And this year, the Penguins are making it more of a priority to get their defensemen involved as they have more mobility on the back end with some of the changes they made there. That will be something to watch as the season progresses.

"It's something we've talked about," Letang said. "The numbers were not great last year from our defense joining the rush and being productive offensively. So it's something that we will encourage, and I think we have the personnel to do it."

The Penguins also feel that with some of the world-class speed in their forward group, they can play a puck pursuit game that allows them to force turnovers and put defensemen under pressure. Because as Sullivan always preaches to them, they have to create offense different ways. "We've got to be able to play a grind game, too," he said. "We can't get stubborn when there's numbers back."

THE CORE LEADERSHIP AND THEIR SUPPORTING CAST: Throughout all of the changes, Rutherford and Sullivan were adamant that they still believed in that core leadership group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang.

"We believe that there's more elite hockey in these guys," Sullivan said on Monday.

That's been evident since training camp began. While all three players are heading towards their mid-30s, they have showed no real signs of slowing down. They returned to Pittsburgh rested and fresh from the extensive time off this past year, and Malkin said they've had lots of discussions about how they want to lead this team to another Stanley Cup.

"From Day 1 of training camp, our whole core of Sid, Geno and Tanger - you can see they're hungry for more," Sullivan said. "They know that there's an opportunity, and they want to seize that moment. And I think it's that motivation and that determination to want to be the best that has allowed them to build a legacy that they have to this point."

That's already had a trickledown effect throughout the rest of the lineup.

"In camp, you could see that they pushed the pace on the ice and that they're at the top of their games right now," Brian Dumoulin said. "That gives us a lot of confidence as a team."

But as Dumoulin went on to say, the rest of them can't sit there and watch - they've got to contribute too. And it looks like that supporting cast of players, especially the ones here last year, look poised for big seasons. 

Not only has Jake Guentzel put his shoulder surgery behind him - he maximized the opportunity to make strength and muscle gains during the past year, and Sullivan said the sky is the limit for him. 

Zucker kept scoring during the intra-squad scrimmages, and it will be exciting to see the kinds of numbers he can put up in a full season with Pittsburgh - especially playing on a line with Malkin and Bryan Rust. I think they have the potential to be something truly special this season. Their chemistry is off the charts. Overall, the Penguins' top-six is pretty scary good.

In addition, the younger guys look like they've got a ton of confidence. Jared McCann and Sam Lafferty in particular have been skating around with plenty of swagger, while John Marino and Pettersson look poised to keep taking big strides. 

That's just to name a few, but so far everyone seems to have an extra level of comfortability, and I think that's going to be huge.

THE NEW ADDITIONS ARE FITTING RIGHT IN: That all being said, I think the biggest X-factor was how the new additions would mesh with the group. As Sullivan has said, team chemistry isn't easy to predict. Sometimes how a roster looks on paper versus how it actually plays out isn't the same.

So when the Penguins discuss bringing a new player into the locker room, they pose a lot of questions: What kind of person is he? Is he going to fit into the group? Is he going to help the team culture? What kind of player is he? Can he play the Penguins' style? Will he fit into a certain role with the personnel group that they have?

They were satisfied with the answers they came up with for the players they ultimately decided to add into the mix. And to their credit, the ones who participated in training camp - Evan Rodrigues, Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour, Matheson and Ceci - look like they are going to be tremendous fits with the Penguins organization.

"We have some new guys that are coming in that have had good years and are good players," Rutherford said. "Some are coming off of (down) years for them. So, it'll be interesting to see how their games play out. Of course, we have our fingers crossed that they all get back to the level where they were at their best."

So far, so good in that regard. Pittsburgh has a strong track record of bringing players in and putting them in positions where they can play to their strengths and be successful. You can already see Jankowski and Matheson in particular starting to thrive and rediscover their games. And it will be exciting to see how Kasperi Kapanen fits in once he completes the quarantine period, as he's set to get a look on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel.

And it's not just on the ice that the new additions are fitting in - it's behind the bench as well. The power play already looks rejuvenated under Todd Reirden, back for a second stint as assistant coach, with McCann saying he's given them the confidence that was lacking last year.

Having Reirden back is huge for Letang, as he was a terrific mentor to the defenseman during his first stint with Pittsburgh and helped him become one of the league's elite. It will be fun to see how the insights and ideas Reirden gathered during his time on the Washington Capitals coaching staff will help Letang, the defense, and the power play.

JARRY LOOKS POISED AND CONFIDENT: Tristan Jarry has waited a long time for this opportunity to become the Penguins' starting goalie, and he looks ready to take full advantage of it. He was simply terrific throughout the course of training camp. He didn't allow any goals in intra-squad scrimmage action until the final one on Sunday, and just looks so comfortable within his own game.

"You love when you see that they're poised back there, that they're confident," Crosby said of Jarry. "He can handle the puck really well and play with a lot of confidence."

The Penguins believe the sky is the limit for the talented 25-year-old netminder, and that he has an ability to be a premiere goalie in this league. I think that's exactly what's going to happen this year.

Casey DeSmith has looked sharp as well, back with the team after spending the entirety of the 2019-20 season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He said he learned a lot from the experience, especially with it being his first time as a bonafide starter in the pros. There's been a lot of talk about how the Penguins will need to rely on both of their goaltenders in this shortened, condensed season, and both of them look more than ready for the challenge.

"Jars is one of those guys that can be a really big impact player for us," Zucker said. "We're excited to see what he brings to the table come Game 1 and throughout. But we're going to need Casey as well, and I think he looks great."

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