Courtesy of Point Park University

Five reasons the Penguins will improve … and five why they won’t


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Kris Letang (left) and Evgeni Malkin (right) chat during a game vs. the Capitals – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Penguins had just the 13th 100-point season in franchise history in 2018-19.

They qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 13th consecutive spring, the longest active streak in the NHL.

By some standards -- quite a few of them, actually -- it was a pretty successful season.

By the ones the Penguins have established for themselves over the past decade or so, however, it bordered on being an abject failure.

They didn't secure a playoff berth until their 81st regular-season game, then lasted just four games before the Islanders jettisoned them into their earliest off-season since the days when Sidney Crosby was shaving once every other week — and not because he really needed to.

The issue now is whether the Penguins' shortcomings last season were an aberration or a harbinger, whether they can reclaim a place among the league's legitimate contenders or shouldn't aspire to anything greater than another cameo in the playoffs.

A case can be made for both outcomes, so we'll do just that.

Let's start with five reasons the Penguins can expect to rebound from the disappointments of 2018-19:

1. Malkin is motivated

Only a world-class talent could have a season in which he put up 72 points in 68 games be viewed by many as an unmitigated disaster, but that was 2018-19 distilled to a phrase for Evgeni Malkin.

His miserable performance during the Penguins' preseason finale last Saturday aside, Malkin appears to have taken personally the disappointments of last season, including a team-worst plus-minus rating of minus-25. Now, he looks to be intent on making amends. That could be very, very unfortunate for the rest of the league.

2. Powering up

The Penguins' power play was one of the NHL's most efficient last season, scoring on 24.6 percent of its chances.

And while it doesn't seem like that leaves much room for improvement -- only four clubs had higher conversion rates -- the reality is that this season's could be significantly better. No, it should be.

It looks as if seven or eight guys will play on the No. 1 unit (opponents will only think they're all out there at the same time), allowing the Penguins to tailor their tactics to attack any soft spots in the other team's penalty-killing. No reason its success rate shouldn't be north of 25 percent, even solidly in the high 20s.

3. Murray is money

Matt Murray, who established his credentials as a big-game goaltender by helping the Penguins win a pair of Stanley Cups during his first two seasons in the NHL, had a strong camp and appears primed for a big season.

If there's a concern about Murray, it should focus on his ability to avoid injuries (especially concussions), not whether he can stop pucks.

4. Lining up just right

The Jake Guentzel-Crosby-Whoever line should be one of the NHL's most productive and, with a little luck, its members could take a serious run at combining for 100 goals, making it the franchise's second-generation Century Line.

Guentzel has 50-goal potential — if things break just right for him — and Crosby remains one of the league's elite talents. If you'd have to be a one-line team -- which the Penguins are not -- this would be a pretty good group to take on that role.

5. The lure of green

Money can be a great motivator, and some potential big contributors -- Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann and Dominik Kahun -- could elevate their games because they'll have a chance to cash in as free agents next summer.

Hockey players don't often talk about being driven by a paycheck, and perhaps most aren't, but having an opportunity to move up a tax bracket or two can't hurt.

If most of the variable things go their way, the coming season could be a memorable one for the Penguins -- for all the right reasons. At the same time, it doesn't take a hyperactive imagination to envision how 2019-20 could produce more of the same that they went through last season. Or worse.

Here are five reasons why this team will be worse than last year's:

1. Injuries hurt

History tells us that the Penguins' core players simply can't stay healthy for a full season. Of the four veterans at the very heart of their lineup -- Crosby, Malkin, Murray and Kris Letang -- Crosby was the only one to sit out fewer than 14 games in 2018-19.

Even if the injury that forced Crosby to leave the Penguins' final exhibition game doesn't prevent him from dressing for the opener, it has to be a troubling portent for his teammates and coaches. And possibly starting the season without both second-line wingers, Bryan Rust and Galchenyuk, because of injuries is hardly cause for optimism.

2. Tough neighborhood

Much of the Metropolitan Division -- indeed, much of the league -- is getting better, while the effects of the Penguins' "win-now" approach to the past dozen or so years are beginning to be felt.

Metro teams like the Islanders and Hurricanes took surprisingly big steps forward in 2018-19, and even if they regress a bit this season, which history says is a very real possibility, they should continue to be formidable. The Capitals remain a quality group, and the Rangers and Devils should be significantly improved.

Bottom line: Points won't come easily for almost any team, including the Penguins, in 2019-20.

3. The curse of Kessel

Phil Kessel's game is not without its flaws -- he's not going to win a Selke Trophy anytime soon (or any other time, for that matter) and some of his bad habits might rub off on his teammates -- but he was a point-per-game guy last season and an integral member of the top power-play unit.

Galchenyuk, acquired in the trade that sent Kessel to Arizona, has the potential to show up on the scoresheet fairly often (especially if his game meshes with Malkin's on the second line), but it's unlikely that he'll match the 82 points Kessel accumulated last season. After all, Galchenyuk's career-high is 56, and three seasons have passed since he did that.

4. Sullivan's expiration date

For whatever reason, NHL coaches -- even the most successful ones -- generally have a pretty short shelf life compared to those in other sports. Players who once embraced every syllable of their instruction begin to tune them out, and messages that once inspired a team are met with a figurative, collective shrug.

Mike Sullivan will hit the four-year mark in a couple of months (feels like it's been longer than that since he replaced Mike Johnston, doesn't it?) and even though he is the only coach to win two Stanley Cups here, his to-do list for the coming season should include doing everything possible to keep his players' attention.

5. They can't help it

There have been times over the years when it seemed as if defensive lapses were embedded in the Penguins' DNA, and that certainly was the case last season, when they gave away odd-man breaks with a regularity that suggested they believed they could claim them as charitable contributions on their taxes.

Sullivan has made no secret that limiting, if not nearly eliminating, those is a top priority this season, but identifying a problem doesn't always translate to correcting it. If nothing else, Sullivan's success in that regard will be a leading indicator of whether the players still are absorbing his words, then acting on them.

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