A quick look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2018-19 opening night roster, side by side with their opening night roster of a year ago, shows that GM Jim Rutherford has accomplished his primary goal.
The most striking upgrade is at third-line center, where Greg McKegg, now playing for the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League, has been replaced by Derick Brassard, who would easily be centering one of the top two lines on an NHL team that didn’t already have players named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in those roles.
That gives the Penguins a three-line attack that could present matchup nightmares for opponents. Especially since Brassard, who never really got the chance to find his offensive game after joining the team and getting hurt last season, is looking like – well, Derick Brassard.
“He’s quicker. He has the puck more. His decision-making… it’s the guy we know the way he’s capable of playing right now,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s playing with a lot of conviction and, when he plays that way, he’s a terrific player. I think he’s had a great camp, and he seems to be getting better with each game.”
Riley Sheahan, initially acquired as that third-line center, drops down to center a fourth line that has skill and speed, with reacquired veteran presence Matt Cullen on one wing and 21-year-old Daniel Sprong trying to carve out his NHL spot on the other.
On defense? The biggest upgrade will be if Kris Letang has returned to Kris Letang form, coming off a full summer of the kinds of workouts he’s used to, instead of scaling back during his recovery from serious neck surgery.
“I had a little bit of time for rest and I was able to maintain the workload all summer,” Letang said. “I was able to do everything I wanted to prepare for this year.
“At the beginning, middle [of last year], it was different. If you don’t train, you can have a good shift but, when the fatigue starts creeping on you, you start making bad decisions. [Now] my body feels good, cardio feels good, conditioning feels good. A million times better; it’s not even close.”
Also on the blue line, after adding a big physical presence in Jamie Oleksiak last season, Pittsburgh continued to add size and skill this summer with free agent Jack Johnson.
Johnson’s stats – his worst points total since his rookie year and downward-trending ice time, not to mention a Corsi that put him in the bottom tier of NHL defenders in recent years – might not have made the most compelling case for the five-year deal GM Jim Rutherford gave him over the summer. But the 31-year-old Johnson had a strong preseason, looks to be a good fit with Pittsburgh’s mobile defensive style, and is eager for the fresh start.
“I’m coming to a team that’s been one of the top teams for a long time now,” Johnson said. “You sit in the room here surrounded by great players, and I think on an everyday basis, in practice and games, being around great players helps elevate your own game. I still think I’ve got a lot to grow and improve on, so I’m really excited about it.”
As the Penguins gear up for their season opener against the Washington Capitals, they’re excited, too. Because the depth they’ve added puts them back in the conversation as a Stanley Cup contender this season.
The additional rest and motivation that came along with that early out at the hands of the eventual Cup champion Capitals doesn’t hurt, either.
“We’ve been through it together, and I think there’s a hunger in this group that we know how great it is being at the top,” Cullen said. “It wasn’t long ago that we were there, and I think we all feel like we have an opportunity to get there again. I sense a lot of purpose in here.”