This Team Could Have Been So Much More: The 2020-2021 Pittsburgh Penguins Season, In Review


(Bruce Benett//Getty Images)

Brock Nelson celebrates a goal scored against Tristan Jarry.

“As far as what I can see and how I feel, there’s zero doubt in my mind that the group that we have is a really good group and we had an opportunity here, and that’s why it stings so much.”   – Sidney Crosby, After Game 6

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—As the final seconds ran off the clock at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, New York Islanders fans cheered as their hometown team had defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

For the Islanders, it was their fifth series win since their former captain John Tavares left to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 2017-2018 season and everyone disregarded them.

For the Penguins, it was their third consecutive first round exit (with an asterisk for 2020 during the makeshift Stanley Cup Qualifiers), and the start of yet another off-season of questions and wondering if the championship window is shut in Pittsburgh. 

Ron Hextall speaks to the media in 2018. (AP)

An Amazing Regular Season

This was one of the best Penguins teams in years, at least according to the statistics. The Penguins had won a division title for the first time since the 2013-2014 season. That is impressive in any year, but in a year with new divisions caused by COVID-19 (the Penguins were in the East Division, arguably the most stacked division in the NHL) that is even better. The Penguins went 37-16-3 for 77 points over a 56 game schedule. That record would have been on pace to be one of the best seasons in recent history over an 82 game season. 

The Penguins had a great, albeit somewhat quiet, trade deadline. Jeff Carter, the Penguins only addition, played amazingly well for his short run in Pittsburgh. Carter scored 9 goals in 14 regular season games, including a 4 goal game on May 6. In the postseason, he added another 4 in 6 games. 

“The hunger is still in the room,” Carter said after the game. “There are some really disappointed guys in there. It was a really good opportunity for this group, and unfortunately, we came up short.”

This was one of the few chances left for the Penguins to win with this core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, and the trio looked great in the regular season. Guys like Frederick Gaudreau, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Carter, and others either through trade or call-up stepped up and filled in perfectly in another injury riddled season. 

After an off-season in which many analysts and pundits said Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs, they showed up and became division champions. 

So, with such a great team and such a promising season, how come the Penguins are heading to the golf course after just six playoff games? Let’s take a look:

Penguins Couldn’t Get Goaltending In The Postseason

Tristan Jarry looks to the rafters after losing Game 5. (Joe Sargent//NHL via Getty Photos)

It is rare that so much of a series is determined by the play of just one person, but yet that is the way the series unfolded.. 

Jarry, who may end up being infamous in Penguins history for his pass directly to Isles forward Josh Bailey to give him a goal in double OT of Game 5, was rattled all series and never looked comfortable in the crease. 

There were the high glove side goals against Jarry in Game 1. 

There was the aforementioned turnover in Game 5 that cost the Pens the game. 

And then, there was also the 3 goals in under 3 minutes Jarry gave up to turn a 3-2 Penguins lead into a 5-3 deficit in Game 6. 

However, besides picking apart moments of games, the underlying stats also prove Jarry had a terrible run, with a 3.18 Goals Against Average (GAA) and a .888 Save Percentage (Sv%) in 6 games. 

By comparison, Islanders rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin went 4-0 with a 1.95 GAA and a .943 Sv% (the two Penguin wins came when Semyon Varlamov was in net). Sorokin stood on his head in this series, thoroughly outplaying Jarry and a Penguins offense that was dominating New York in terms of shots on goal and zone time. 

When asked why he did not pull Jarry during the game, head coach Mike Sullivan responded, “I’m not gonna discuss the discussions we have as a coaching staff and the decisions we made at any position.” 

However, the downfall of the Penguins in this series is not the fault of Jarry alone. There were other contributing factors:

The top line did not look like the top line. Sidney Crosby lost his step defensively, Bryan Rust disappeared, and Jake Guentzel got beaten up in the series. In Game 6 alone, Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust were a combined -10. 

In a series like this, you need your top line to be your top line. You need them to score, and you need them to score often. And just as importantly, they cannot be a defensive liability on the ice, as they were in Game 6. 

In addition to the top line, other forwards failed to show up and put up points as well. 

However, this series loss falls primarily on the shoulders of the goalie, who may have played his last game in Pittsburgh.

What Are The Consequences Of Yet Another First Round Exit?

This will be the first off-season with Ron Hextall as General Manager and Brian Burke as President of Hockey Operations, who are likely eager to make a bigger mark on the team. The only additions Hextall has made so far were the waiver claim of former Flyers D-man Mark Friedman and the trade addition of Jeff Carter from Los Angeles.

The Penguins will not and should not be content with another first round exit. Plain and simple. Sidney Crosby, while still one of the best in the league, will be 34 years old when next season starts. Kris Letang will also be 34 years old. Evgeni Malkin will be 35 years old. After another early playoff exit, there will be much speculation on whether this core should and/or will stay together. In the post-game press conference after Game 6, Crosby was asked about the core:

“Well they’ve been saying [that maybe the core should be broken up] for four years right, so I don’t know if I’m gonna change anybody’s mind, but, you know I think that we did a lot of good things…as far as what I’d say, I really don’t know, but I know that the three of us, we want to win, and we’ll do whatever it takes to try to compete to do that every year.”

Crosby is obviously untouchable, but Malkin and Letang may not have the same status. While obviously both are held in incredibly high regard within this organization, with new management, it would not be entirely out of the realm of possibility for the Penguins to look at what the market is for either one. 

It’s obviously incredibly unlikely anyone from the core is gone, but don’t be surprised if you hear Malkin and Letang’s names in a lot of trade rumors this off-season. 

Tristan Jarry will likely face a similar fate, with the only difference being he does not have the benefit of being a franchise face. Unfortunately, it is hard to envision much of a market for him. His aforementioned 3.18 GAA and .888 Sv%, as well as the fact he has a $3.5 million dollar cap hit, and after a performance like that in the postseason, it’s hard to envision teams lining up to trade for him. He is only 26, so a team looking for a reclamation project could see some interest in Jarry.

However, if any deal comes Pittsburgh’s way, Hextall will likely look closely at it. Maybe they can work out a deal for Seattle to take him in the expansion draft?

Is Mike Sullivan Gone As Penguins Head Coach?

Mike Sullivan looks on during a Pittsburgh Penguins game. (Joe Sargent//NHL via Getty Images)

After the Stanley Cup Qualifiers loss to Montreat in 2020, Mike Sullivan, to the surprise of some, kept his job as head coach. However, his assistants Jacques Martin, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar, were all fired. This time, after another early and embarrassing playoff exit, will Sullivan find himself on the unemployment line? 

Since his hiring, Sullivan has shown he is a stubborn coach who, in lieu of adapting and changing his ways during and in between games, usually decides to double down on his decision. Sometimes, it works out. Other times? Not so much. This was on full display with the decision to keep and start Jarry after his rough time in the net. Will his refusal to give Maxime Legace a shot come back to haunt him?

What Does The Off-Season Look Like?

No matter what path and vision for the future the Penguins management chooses, they will be a very interesting team to watch this off-season. The Penguins have only six Unrestricted Free Agents who played games for them this year: Freddy Gaudreau, Colton Sceviour, and Evan Rodrigues in the forwards category, Cody Ceci and Yannick Weber on the blue line, and Maxime Legace in net. 

Of those, it is likely less than half will be back. It would not be surprising to see names like Sceviour and Weber (who only played 2 games for Pittsburgh all year) let go. Rodrigues probably sticks around if Sullivan does, Sullivan seems to have a liking for Evan. Cody Ceci experienced a revival of his career this year after signing in Pittsburgh, and Frederick Gaudreau much the same after his call-up.  

Gaudreau probably will not cost a significant amount, if the Penguins decide to bring him back. Ceci, on the other hand, may have priced himself out of Pittsburgh, as he experienced a season of revitalization, a cap strapped team like the Pens might not have the kind of money Ceci could be asking for. 

Legace, who was the 3rd string goaltender, but served as the backup in the postseason due to an injury to Casey DeSmith, played only one game this year, a 1-0 shutout against the Buffalo Sabres in the regular season finale. With Sullivan’s refusal to play him even with Jarry’s mishaps, it’s very unlikely Legace plays any influential role with the Penguins going forward. 

Players like Jason Zucker and Marcus Pettersson, who carry high cap hits and can be replaced, may also be leaving the team this summer. Moving either one won’t be the easiest trade, with Zucker’s $5.5 million dollar cap hit until 2022-23, and Pettersson’s $4.025 million until 2024-25. Add those numbers with the fact that the salary cap, currently at $81.5 million, will not be going up this offseason, mainly because of the pandemic. 

As for who could be coming in, it’s almost a given the Pens will be looking for an upgrade in net, whether Jarry is on this team next year or not. Burke, an advocate for heavy-hitting and physical teams, will likely want to bring in some bigger bodies. 

But with all of this, nothing is official yet. No moves have taken place so far, and there are still many questions covering the team. Who will Seattle take in the upcoming Expansion Draft this summer? Will Tristan Jarry be a Penguin next year? Will the Penguins look to get bigger to match some of their division rivals? Is Mike Sullivan still head coach? 

All these and more will hover over an off-season that fans will look at with much intrigue. However, the bottom line is, this team needs to perform better in the postseason if they want to win another Stanley Cup. They have lost thirteen out of their last sixteen playoff games, and that kind of record is not going to get you there.