Pittsburgh Penguins 2021 regular-season projections

Pittsburgh Penguins hockey returns tonight.

It’s been 159 days since the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason defeat to the Montreal Canadiens. Tonight at 5:30 PM, the puck drops on what will be an unprecedented 2020-21 NHL season. Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia Flyers will be the first puck drop of the new campaign.

Jack Johnson, Justin Schultz, Patric Hornqvist, and Matt Murray were the notable offseason departures. Kasperi Kapanen, Mark Jankowski, and Mike Matheson were the most notable acquisitions. The Penguins are a slightly better team heading into the 2021 campaign.

Here is a rundown of the Penguins roster and what analytically inclined hockey analysts project for Pittsburgh in this 56 game regular-season.

Roster rundown

At center, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still elite. They are projected to be worth 3.5 wins each this season. Mark Jankowski will start as the third-line center. His defensive metrics are strong, but he will need to be more productive offensively to keep that 3C spot for the duration of the season. Teddy Blueger is back as the fourth-line center.

Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker form the best 1/2 punch at left wing of this era. In a 56-game season, they are both capable of scoring 25 to 30 goals. Provided that they can both stay healthy, lookout. Jared McCann is starting the season as the third-line left wing. He ended last season with a 25 game goalless drought. However, the scoring chances were there. The Penguins need to find a facilitator and/or playmaker for that line to get McCann the puck. Sam Lafferty appears to be opening the season as the fourth-line left-winger, and he has been underwhelming in his limited NHL sample thus far.

On the right-wing, Bryan Rust will look to build on his breakout 2019-20 campaign. I would not bet on Rust shooting 18% again, so there will likely be some regression in the goal-scoring department. Rust is a terrific fit alongside Malkin and will be on Pittsburgh’s top powerplay unit. Kasperi Kapanen arrived from Finland last Saturday and is currently quarantined. Not an ideal start to the season for the Penguins’ biggest offseason acquisition. Colton Sceviour was a throw into the trade with Florida. Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, and Evan Rodrigues can play both left and right-wing.

At some point this season, the Penguins will likely need to add a top 9 forward via trade. Their third line is the great unknown, and it will need to be sorted out and productive by the time the postseason arrives. As their core players age, they will need a stronger supporting cast and more secondary scoring.

Sidney Crosby (87)

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In terms of in-house options, forward Drew O’Connor is a name to watch. O’Connor produced 38 goals and 59 points in his two NCAA seasons at Dartmouth. He is starting the season on the taxi squad. A video breakdown of O’Connor can be found here.

The Penguins defense core is the best it has been in 5 years. Kris Letang remains an elite offensive defenseman & will remain on the top defensive pair alongside Brian Dumoulin. As a rookie, John Marino played at a top-pair level. Marcus Pettersson returns and is entering the first year of his 5 year, $20,125,875 contract. Mike Matheson was acquired from the Florida Panthers in the offseason. While Matheson brings mobility and a nice wrist shot to the table, he needs to improve his decision making and cut back on turnovers. Cody Ceci starts the season as the sixth defender, with Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola as the seventh and eighth blueliners.

Between the pipes, Tristan Jarry is the clear #1 netminder. He was excellent in the shortened training camp. After spending all of last season in AHL Wilkes-Barre, Casey DeSmith is back with the NHL club as the backup.

Going into last season, the Penguins had a 5% chance to win the Stanley Cup. As the 2020-21 season begins, their roster is marginally better, and their odds to win a fourth Stanley Cup of the Crosby & Malkin era are slightly higher.

Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic is one of my favorite follows on hockey Twitter. His Penguins season preview can be found below.

Here is what his model has for the Penguins as of today:

  • Projected Points: 68.5
  • Projected division finish: 2nd
  • Playoff chances: 80%
  • Stanley Cup chances: 6%

In terms of individual projections, Luszczyszyn’s model has Malkin at 60 points, Crosby at 57, Guentzel at 49, and Letang at 37 in this 56 game season.

Hockey fans should consider themselves very lucky that Micah Blake McCurdy does not work for an NHL team yet. His work is outstanding. After *1 million* simulations of this NHL season, here is what Micah’s model has in store for Pittsburgh this season.

  • Projected points: 65.2
  • Projected division finish: 2nd
  • Playoff chances: 72.8%

As of writing this, Micah has not posted his Stanley Cup odds yet. However, in his season preview, he feels that the East Division is the most top-heavy of the four. Micah added that “Pittsburgh benefits here from a very strong head coach in Mike Sullivan, who gets credit for the improvements of many players putting up better results upon moving to Pittsburgh.” His full preview can be found here.

Evolving Hockey

  • Projected points: 70
  • Projected division finish: 3rd
  • Playoff chances: 84.5%

I expect the Penguins to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. Pittsburgh still has the hardest pieces to get, their core remains elite, and they are likely a forward addition or two away from increasing their Stanley Cup odds. Enjoy the season & thanks for reading!