We talked about it a couple weeks ago, and now it’s happening. While everyone was busy gritting their teeth through the final week of Nat King Cole playlists, the NHL made it official.
The countdown to January 13 is on!
— NHL (@NHL) December 23, 2020
The Penguins division foes Are Who We Thought They Were, and now it’s time to dance, bitch.
What does it all mean? Well for starters, it going to be shit storm the likes of which nobody has ever seen (literally).
OK – so maybe we’ve seen SOME of this before.
- PACE: The 56-game schedule will of course feel like the 48 game sprint in 2013 following the lockout. The obvious has been stated plenty by now – much less room for error. A 2-8-1 streak ain’t gonna cut it. Less clear: Who will benefit?
- FAMILIAR FACES: The Penguins and their fans are as familiar with most of their divisional foes as Derek Jeter is with Valtrex. They are all annoying. Speaking of herpes, the Penguins are flaring up after their Bruins/Sabres rash laid dormant for 25 years. The last time they shared a division was in 1998, when the Penguins won the division by a comfortable 7 points ahead of the #2 Bruins and #3 Sabres. The Sabez actually make it to the ECF that year where they fell to the Caps 4-2. None other than Miro Satan lead them in points.
All that said, the balance of this whacky season will be totally uncharted territory for the Pens, the League, and your mom. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, no professional sports league has ever had a season where divisional opponents played ONLY each other, and obviously all the empty arena shit will be bizarre and very touch-and-go. I’m still holding out hope for February games outdoors, but that’s probably as realistic as my chances with Gal Gadot.
As for the Pens’ division, I don’t want to repeat myself but yeah…buckle up for a shit hurricane. Last I checked Pensblog is still run by fans, so unlike most of the Pittsburgh media, I don’t have to pretend to be anything more than a jackass, biased Yinzer. So I will choose to believe. But I’ll tell you what…if you think the Pens finishing in the top four (4) to qualify for a playoff spot is a sure thing, well….
Don’t take my word for it – Vegas currently has the Pens 9th in Stanley Cup odds but 4th out of their division behind the Bruins, Flyers, and Capitals. Now – it’s always worth remembering that Vegas isn’t necessarily handicapping the results, just the public’s perception. But still, you have some REALLY frisky teams (other than WSH/PHI/BOS):
- Rangers: The rebuild isn’t just ahead of schedule, it’s nearly complete. Panarin and Zibanejad are sick, and they’ve added hockey’s best prospect since McJesus in Alexis Lafreniere. Jacob Trouba will carry the defense, which miraculously includes Jack Johnson. They also have about $4MM of cap space.
- Islanders: The Isles seem like they’ll be a pain in the ass so long as Trotz is around. The roster is pretty similar to the 2020 squad, which went on a run to the ECF and surprised a lot of people along the way (not me). The big story on the Island is Matt Barzal’s hair. Oh, and his contract. As of today, the RFA remains unsigned but contract negotiations are ongoing. Have to assume Lou Lamoriello will throw in some Head & Shoulders and get it done. Scary team.
- Sabez: Taylor Hall and his big teeth will be skating alongside Jack Eichel (and probably Jeff Skinner). That’s fun. It may even be the league’s best line. It probably won’t matter because Buffalo’s defense resembles a Glee Club and their goaltender will likely be Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller by March. But – short season, never know how far an L1 like that can carry you.
- Devils: OK, they’ll probably suck. But knowing the Pens they’ll split the season series 4-4. Worth noting the Devs have $14MM in cap space, not sure who they can sign at this point though.
I’ll stick with five (5) that you probably haven’t heard anywhere.
- Casey DeSmith will be a Top 10 Backup: Why is everyone so concerned about the Pens’ goalies? Cannon fodder? What if I told you that 33 year old Anton Qdoba (.930) led the league in SV% in 2020? Or that Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck (.922) was a whopping .001 ahead of Tristian Jarry (.921)? The consistently great ‘tendies are the exception, not the rule. For every Rask / Price, you have a Demko / Jarry / Merzlikins who comes out of nowhere and has a great year. Age and Experience are VASTLY overrated at the position, which is defined by volatility. Casey DeSmith is a career .917. He’ll play like 10 games and be fine. And even if he isn’t, there is no sense in fans or coaches worrying about it. Let 93.7 fill up their airwaves with preseason goalie talk.
- The Caps Will Miss the Playoffs: The East is a Thunder Dome and at least one perennial monster ain’t coming out alive. This could just as easily be the Pens, but I’m going with the Caps to struggle out of the gate and never quite recover. Among their challenges: A core on the wrong side of 30, a new coach, no cap space, an iffy goaltending situation, the ghost of Justin Schultz, and brutal fans who I desperately want to see suffer. The Caps and Penguins will be like those two guys from the pool stick scene in the Dark Knight all season.
- The Penguins Will Be Elite Defensively: I don’t just like the Pens’ blue line, I love it. The Tang / Dumo / Pettersson / Marino Top 4 is beyond serviceable and potentially lethal. The jury is still out on Matheson, but his impact on the forwards (speed / puck movement) HAVE to be a welcome change from last year’s JJ / Schultz dumpster fire 3rd pairing. Who cares how bad his contract sucks in 3 years? Ceci isn’t as brutal as some would lead you to believe either – just ask Jeff and Jesse, who are both much smarter than me. Just pray Sully puts these guys in the right spots.
Interesting to note where Ceci’s defense experienced success relative to his usage in his final year of Toronto. The extent to which he’s better than Jack Johnson has been undersold. Discussed this with @JFreshHockey last week. Within his role he performs fine in his own zone. https://t.co/xR1BJ2HS5E
— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) December 28, 2020
4. Jason Zucker Will Score 20 Goals: Alright – so that’s pretty aggressive, but these ain’t your grandma’s predictions. Hear me out: Zucker had 20 tucks in 60 games last year. If he stays healthy and spends all 56 alongside Crosby or Malkin, it is doable. He and 87 showed great chemistry last year and I expect them to be dominant, but you know he will inevitably spend some time with 71 while Cros gets Jake. EDITORS NOTE TO MYSELF: Is Jelly a stupid nickname? You know, like Smuckers? Reaching? Never mind, I’m an idiot.
5. Youth Will Sink or Swim The 3rd / 4th Line: You’re worried about the 3rd line. I’m worried about the 3rd line. Dr. Fauci is planning to address the 3rd line is his next press conference. Just my philosophy – but I think a MAJOR key to NHL playoff success is young, pesky, speedy skaters on entry level deals who drive the other team nuts and contribute offensively. Veterans like McCann, Sceviour and Jankowski should have a limited leash. Even if guys like Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare don’t make the team, they could make the big club’s taxi squad (especially if the lower level leagues aren’t playing). The Q is scheduled for Jan 22 and The AHL for Feb 4, but we’ll see how that all shakes out. Coaches will be hesitant to do this given small margin of error a short season provides, but how much worse could it be than 2020 Patrick Marleau?
BONUS PREDICITON #6: Arenas will allow SOME fans by April Fool’s Day: You gotta believe in something. Have your Shit Coats and Shit Umbrellas ready – storm’s coming. Go Pens.