Near-complete roster turnover and a young team lacking in experience has resulted in a bit of an up-and-down season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but as they sit 11th in the East and 21st in the league two-thirds of the way through the 2019-20 season, there is a different sense of optimism in the organization.
"Last year, we had all sorts of trouble, we weren't a very good team and we were an older group... this year we're younger, faster, more physical... we've been competitive against everyone and have a really solid group of young players that gives us hope for the future," says the team's new GM, Trevor Cook. "Obviously, the goal is never to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff race, but we knew going in that this would be a bit of a tough year and we've got to be proud of the way this team has battled and developed this year."
After a whirlwind off-season in which the Penguins kept just two players that played in the NHL for the team last year - goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Mattias Backman - it's been a little quieter during the regular season, but there have still been some significant moves towards shaping the roster for the future. An emphasis on acquiring some shooting talent can be noticed in the moves, having acquired prospect Vitali Kravtsov, young power forward Riley Tufte, and 25-year-old winger Hunter Shinkaruk among other names.
"We kinda blew this team up in the off-season and one thing we had trouble getting our hands on was young guys who could really shoot the puck. We had our eyes on a few guys... we couldn't get Tufte in the off-season, we tried to trade up in the draft for (Arthur) Kaliyev, but... that's a rare skill and those guys aren't easy to find. There was obviously a big price to be paid to bring these guys in, especially giving up Marner who we had big plans for, but... we're pretty happy with the new faces," says Cook.
Centre David Cotton has carved out a prominent role for himself on his new team and made himself a fan favourite. Cotton sits second on the team with 32 points, plays 17 minutes a game in all-situations, has delivered 127 hits and also been in 10 fights - winning 8 of them. Viewed as a physical bottom-six centre option with limited offensive upside, the 22-year-old has taken advantage of the increased opportunity afforded to him by playing for a rebuilding team to re-write the perception of him. He's due for a new contract this summer, but will be firmly entrenched into a middle-six forward role on the Pens' next year.
On the other side of the coin, it's been a rough year for 22-year-old defenseman Jeremy Roy. After signing a 4-year, $4.3 million extension in the summer with the expectation of locking down a top-four role, Roy hasn't scored and has just 8 assists with a -15 rating in 45 games despite playing almost 22 minutes per game. He's found himself in the minors for the team's past eight games, although it's unlikely the Penguins have changed their opinion of him going forward.
As for that prospect pool? Jack Hughes had 31 points - third on the team - contrasted with a team-worst -22 rating and a dismal 22.4% face-off rating. But an up-and-down rookie season was expected for the #2 overall pick, and the offense is clearly coming around. Hughes can be expected to be a force heading into next year. Fellow top-10 picks Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Moritz Seider started the year in the AHL but have now been up for a few weeks and continue to develop nicely, and second-round pick Brett Leason recently made his NHL debut after tearing up the AHL through the season's first 50 games. Leason is back down in the AHL, but is certainly on the right track less than a year after being drafted.
The Penguins burst out of a slump on January 31st, winning their first of a currently-active four game winning streak. But their GM says that the recent success won't change their outlook as the trade deadline approaches. "No, we're sellers. I don't think it would do us any good to have delusions about what we are right now. The best thing we can do is stay the course, keep building around this young core group and think long-term. We are a few pieces away yet from being able to contend in the post-season."
The honest take may be a little too pessimistic for Penguins fans, having grown accustomed to winning in the EHEC and having endured back-to-back terrible seasons after seven straight 100+ point years and six playoff runs to the Conference Finals or further. But at least this year, there's reason to be optimistic for the future.