Washington Capitals: Do the Penguins Resemble Champs of Years Past?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals scores a goal against Casey DeSmith #1 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period at Capital One Arena on November 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals scores a goal against Casey DeSmith #1 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period at Capital One Arena on November 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images) /

We continue our offseason look at the Metropolitan Division rivals and how they stack up against the Washington Capitals. Next up, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With the way the NHL is constructed with the hard salary cap, it is rather difficult to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. But that is exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to accomplish in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. It may have taken another year to do, but the team was affected by the roster turnover most champions experience.  Since then, they have not found the formula to get back to the Cup Final. They hope the changes made this offseason will make the difference necessary to reach the ultimate goal instead of an early playoff exit.

The turnover meant the loss of such role players as Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, and Marc-Andre Fleury. All were present for both Stanley Cup championships. The one loss which really doesn’t represent the traditional turnover would be Fluery, since he was taken as part of the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft. This in some ways assisted the team toward clearing cap space, but meant putting full trust into Matt Murray at goalie who was usurped during the playoffs by Fluery. Most likely they would not have won the second Cup without the play of Fluery.

Some of the backlash from players lost after the first cup was offset with the emergence of Jake Guentzel as a key cog. The other losses occurred for various reasons, lost due to free agency or sent as means to improve through trades are just a few of those reasons.

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A main byproduct of the role players lost, was a downturn in the overall team defense. The team resembled more of a top heavy offensive group. This is no more evident than the series of moves they completed this off season to course correct the evolution the team was undergoing. It all started with the acquisition of Dominik Kahun and a 5th round pick in 2019 for Olli Maatta. This was a sacrificial trade or a perfect example of giving up something to get something back.

They received a versatile forward with an offensive touch who doesn’t ignore the defense needed to be successful. This was a possibility due to the trade and emergence of Marcus Pettersson as a viable fill in on the defense early last season. Just before the start of free agency Pittsburgh dropped the most surprising trade up to date sending Phil Kessel, Dane Birks and a 4th round pick in 2021 to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Oliver Joseph. Yet another move initiated to offset the top heavy offense, Kessel was the second leading scorer on the team but was also one of the most defensive liable players shown by his -19 in 2018-2019. With the addition of Galchenyuk, the team gained a cheaper alternative to Kessel with enough offensive upside to offset the loss and fill the spot left by trading Kessel.

The team also acquired a good defensive prospect in Pierre-Oliver Joseph, who is a former first round pick, to help fill a depleted pipeline from all the winning over the recent seasons. While this move didn’t fulfill the need for better team defense it allowed the Penguins enough cap space, moving $6.8 million in Kessel to Arizona for Galchenyuk’s $4.9 million, to sign Brandon Tanev on the first day of free agency. Tanev is a defense first mindset but with enough of an offensive ability to get contributions on both ends of the ice. During all of these additions, the Penguins only lost Matt Cullen who retired and Garrett WIlson from the bottom six depth.

Losing Kessel will be the hardest asset to replace in terms of production, he was the teams second leading scorer with 27 goals and 55 assists for 82 points. The most direct replacement will be Galchenyuk who scored 19 goals and 22 assists for 41 points which was good for third leading scorer for the Arizona Coyotes. With him most likely to be paired with better linemates in either Crosby or Malkin his production will certainly improve, maybe not to the extent of Kessel but relatively close.  For the remaining offense to be covered, Kahun will have an opportunity to improve from his rookie year where he scored 13 goals and 24 assists for 37 points. Tanev will help with the defense for sure considering his 58% start in defensive zones, along with the less goals against than goals for while at five-on-five with 33 scored (oiGF) versus 29 allowed (oiGA).

But this won’t come at a cost of offense as he contributed 14 goals and 15 assists including 2 shorthanded goals to the Jets. The gap in the defense will need to filled by a prospect or Pettersson, once he is under contract since he is a restricted free agent. This may cost the Penguins another key player as they still need to find a way to fit Pettersson under the cap with what appears to be no cap space currently. When you look over one of the perspective roster arrangements the Penguins will need to put a lot of hope and trust into a number of younger role players to continue their growth. Will this hope be enough against the Capitals?

When reviewing the game tape from last season, the Penguins held the advantage over the Capitals at 3-1, they were very closely matched as would be expected with the history of these two teams. All contests ended in a single goal difference except one, however the one game decided by 2 goals was due to an empty net goal when the Capitals were attempting to tie the game late. Each game went as expected with a rivalry of this level, the games had a certain level of chippy play along with a seesaw in terms of whose team defense was better or whose attack was more aggressive. In a large part if Braden Holtby was not the starting goalie these games would have gotten even more out of hand. Another big factor on the outcomes was a certain degree of puck luck, in keeping the Capitals off the score sheet while helping the Penguins get on the score sheet.

Since this was the case last year, the changes each team has made was to improve the team depth and in a similar fashion they both attempted to improve from a defensive standpoint.

light. Related Story. Metropolitan Division outlook: Carolina Hurricanes

This match up is too difficult to estimate especially given the closeness in last seasons match up, if I had to guess I would expect a split in the season series with each being decided much like the last season’s games by one goal each. Below is when we will have to wait and see.

2019-2020 Season Matchups:

Sunday, February 2nd @ Home

Sunday, February 23rd @ Home

Saturday, March 7th @ Pittsburgh

Sunday, March 22nd @ Pittsburgh