Back in 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team to win consecutive Stanley Cups in 19 years. Behind the efforts of forwards Sidney Crosby (who won playoff MVP both years), Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, defenseman Kris Letang and young goaltender Matt Murray, the club had triumphed in the face of an NHL salary cap that was supposed to prevent back-to-back championships from being achievable anymore. Still, the Pens were unable to stave off decline forever: Crosby had a down season and Murray regressed in 2017-18, Malkin and Letang struggled through injuries in 2018-19, and the team managed just six playoff wins during those seasons after recording 32 over the previous two. Then Kessel was dealt to Arizona last June, permanently shaking up the core from the championship years.
The Penguins started the 2019-20 campaign with an incredible plague of injuries — according to the site Man-Games Lost, Pittsburgh has been the most injured team in the league,1 including a absences of 28 games for Crosby, 14 for winger Bryan Rust and 13 for Malkin, and a recent injury to forward Jake Guentzel. With those setbacks plus more struggles for Murray, it seemed like this year might be a continuation of the Penguins’ long post-Cup slide. After all, no great team can stay that way indefinitely.
But Pittsburgh has defied that narrative so far. Instead of collapsing under the weight of all the change and adversity, the team has thrived without Crosby (and others) for long stretches of the season, even finding a new young goaltending phenom to pick up Murray’s slack along the way. Now Crosby is back — and based on the way he has played since his return, the Penguins are poised to be a strong contender for their third Cup in five seasons.
Crosby injuries are nothing new for the Penguins, of course. The superstar center is legitimately on the short list of history’s best-ever players when healthy, but he has also spent more than his share of time on the sidelines over the years. During his career, Crosby has missed 199 total regular season games (plus all of the playoffs in 2011) with a variety of different ailments:
|Season||Age||Games Played||GAR||Games Missed||Major Injury||Potential GAR Lost*|
If we estimate player value using goals above replacement (GAR),2 which adds up the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on his box score stats, Crosby would have been worth 57 more net goals — or nearly 10 more wins3 — if he had played to his career per-game GAR average over those missing contests. Since the NHL-WHA merger in 1979,4 only three players lost more potential value than Crosby through their age-32 seasons: Mario Lemieux — who, coincidentally, now owns the Penguins5 — Eric Lindros and Peter Forsberg:
|Through Age 32|
|Player||Career Games||Career GAR||Games Missed||Lost Value*|
Even when their captain wasn’t present, the Penguins have traditionally managed to survive by relying on a deep stable of supporting talent, none more gifted or imposing than Malkin. Although he has missed plenty of games in his own right — he’s also featured on the list above — Malkin has enjoyed a number of his best seasons in years when Crosby was injured. In 2007-08, when his teammate missed 29 games, a 21-year-old Malkin registered 25.5 GAR (third-best among skaters) and finished second in MVP voting. In 2011-12, when Crosby was sidelined for 60 games, Malkin notched 29.3 GAR (tops among skaters) and won MVP honors. The only season in which both players missed more than 12 games at the same time was 2010-11, when Pittsburgh was dispatched in the first round of the playoffs after scoring just 14 goals in seven postseason games.
Well … the only season until this year. Malkin has missed 13 games, mostly early in the season with a lower body injury, while Crosby was lost for 28 games after core muscle surgery, sidelining him from Nov. 12 until Jan. 14. But the rest of the Penguins collectively helped keep the team afloat.
The 25-year-old Guentzel was playing like a star (on pace for 19.8 GAR) before he was lost to a shoulder injury on Dec. 30, crashing hard into the boards after scoring a goal. Rust is tracking for a 35-goal, 17.5-GAR season, which at age 27 would completely shatter his previous career highs. Elder statesman Letang ranks 10th among all blueliners in GAR, while 22-year-old rookie defenseman John Marino ranks 31st. Jared McCann (age 23) and Dominik Kahun (24) have both been useful young forwards, tracking for 10.2 and 8.4 GAR, respectively. (Naturally, Kahun was also injured recently, so he’ll be in concussion protocol for the time being.) Despite the many injuries, Penguin forwards rank fifth in the league in total GAR, while the team’s D-men rank seventh.
Perhaps most importantly, 24-year-old All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry has been backstopping the Penguin defense with the league’s best save percentage (.929, tied for No. 1 with Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper), capitalizing on Murray’s disappointing .900 mark to steal away Pittsburgh’s starting job between the pipes. Goaltending performance is incredibly fickle, and nobody should know this more than the Penguins: Murray himself once was the young upstart, unseating veteran Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh’s starting role in 2016 after an injury pressed Murray into action right before the playoffs. His postseason performance was so outstanding that Pittsburgh made Murray the permanent starter — and eventually left Fleury unprotected among the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft options in the summer of 2017.
(Does that mean that we’ll see Murray rattle off one of the best playoff runs ever for the coming Seattle franchise?)
Jarry’s performance might have additional staying power in part because he’s been aided by the defense in front of him. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Jarry has had to make only 5.7 “high-danger” saves6 per 60 minutes this year, which ranks eighth-lowest among netminders with at least 800 minutes.7 But he’s been stopping the routine shots in a way that Murray simply hasn’t been able to so far this season, and that reliability in net has been a major factor in Pittsburgh surviving the absences of many star players.
In fact, with Crosby and Malkin out for so many games, Jarry has statistically been the top player on the 2020 Penguins so far, producing 13.7 GAR in a little over a half-season of work. Although his numbers will probably regress to the mean as the season goes on — Jarry’s career save percentage going into the season was .906, 23 points lower than his rate so far this year — he has been spearheading the group of young players who could factor into Pittsburgh’s renaissance this year. According to GAR, only four teams this season (Columbus, Colorado, Toronto and Carolina) have gotten more value out of players in their age-25 seasons or younger than the Penguins:
|Goals Above Replacement|
|Team||Offense||Defense||Goaltending||Total||Share of Team Total|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||20.5||26.4||19.1||65.9||76.3%|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||42.2||13.1||0.0||55.3||70.3|
|New York Rangers||21.5||10.9||8.3||40.7||49.9|
Between that replenished group of up-and-comers and old standbys healthy again — Crosby didn’t look rusty at all while notching a casual one goal and three assists in his return last week, while Malkin scored twice in the same game and set up Rust with a ridiculous no-look drop pass — the Penguins now seem more fearsome than they have since their consecutive Cup runs. Hockey-Reference.com’s playoff forecast currently gives Pittsburgh a 9 percent chance of winning it all, trailing only the Lightning and Bruins in the Eastern Conference. It isn’t easy to maintain that level of performance through such a calamitous spate of injuries, but now Pittsburgh is armed with both their stars and one of the NHL’s best young groups of supporting talent. Beware the Penguins, indeed.