Penguins season preview: Addition of Kapanen bolsters top line

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The 2020-21 NHL season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will play in the East Division.

 

Coach: Mike Sullivan (sixth season) 

Last season: 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage); fifth place in Eastern Conference, lost to Montreal Canadiens in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

 

3 KEYS

1. Kapanen meeting expectations 

The Penguins feel Kasperi Kapanen could become the perfect complement on the first line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Kapanen was acquired as part of a six-player trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 25. The right wing scored 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 69 games last season. He scored 80 points (33 goals, 47 assists) in his past two seasons (147 games) and was given a vote of confidence after coach Mike Sullivan said in November he could be just what Crosby and Guentzel need to jump-start the top line this season.

 

2. Strong start for Jarry

Pittsburgh signaled a changing of the guard in net to Tristan Jarry when it traded Matt Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup champion (2016, 2017), to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 7. Jarry had NHL career bests in games (33), wins (20), goals-against average (2.43), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (three) last season, but he’ll have to earn the trust of his teammates during a condensed regular season.

 

3. Adjustments at defenseman

After Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino and Marcus Pettersson in the top four, there are a few players in the running to make up the third defense pair. The Penguins opted to not re-sign Justin Schultz (Washington Capitals) and bought out Jack Johnson. They acquired defenseman Mike Matheson in a trade from the Florida Panthers on Sept. 24, and defenseman Cody Ceci agreed to a one-year contract Oct. 17. Matheson, a left-hand shot, and Ceci, a right-hand shot, likely have the inside track on the final two spots, but Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola and defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph will challenge for playing time.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

Mark Jankowski, who agreed to a one-year contract Oct. 9, is expected to fill a role on the third line. A defensive center who also contributes on the penalty kill, Jankowski has scored seven shorthanded goals since becoming a full-time NHL player in 2017-18, which is tied for fifth in the League in that span. He has scored 64 points (36 goals, 28 assists) in 208 regular-season games and no points in 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

 

Most intriguing addition

Success this season may hinge on how well Kapanen fares on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel. Guentzel scored 40 goals and Crosby scored 100 points when Bryan Rust was their most common linemate in 2018-19, but injuries limited Guentzel and Crosby last season. It wouldn’t be the first time Kapanen has lined up alongside elite skaters; he had turns with John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner with the Maple Leafs the past two seasons.

Video: 31 in 31: Pittsburgh Penguins 2020-21 season preview

 

Biggest potential surprise

Don’t sleep on Drew O’Connor, who signed a two-year, entry-level contract March 10 after two seasons at Dartmouth College. The 22-year-old is big (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and versatile enough to play center or wing. O’Connor was named the Ivy League co-player of the year after leading Dartmouth in goals (21) and points (33) as a sophomore last season.

 

Ready to break through

Jarry is the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the first time in his NHL career. Pittsburgh traded up to select Jarry in the second round (No. 44) of the 2013 NHL Draft, so his promotion was inevitable. The 25-year-old was 12-2-0 with a 1.78 GAA and .941 save percentage in 13 starts from Nov. 16-Dec. 30 last season. He made his NHL postseason debut in Game 4 of the Cup Qualifiers, allowing one goal on 21 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. His expected backup, Casey DeSmith, played last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League and has no NHL postseason experience.

 

Fantasy sleeper

Kapanen (LW/RW; average draft position: 161.0) scored 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 69 games for Toronto last season in mostly a bottom-six role but had NHL career highs in goals (20) and points (44) the previous season. The potential elite exposure with Pittsburgh makes Kapanen one of NHL.com’s top 10 sleeper candidates and worth a selection in the late rounds of a standard 12-team draft. — Rob Reese

 

Projected lineup 

Jake Guentzel — Sidney Crosby — Kasperi Kapanen

Jason ZuckerEvgeni Malkin — Bryan Rust

Jared McCann — Mark Jankowski — Evan Rodrigues

Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerColton Sceviour

Brian Dumoulin — Kris Letang

Marcus Petterson — John Marino

Mike Matheson — Cody Ceci

Tristan Jarry

Casey DeSmith

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