2014/15 Season Preview – Pittsburgh Penguins

Image Credit Gregory Shamus/NHLI (penguins.nhl.com)

2013/14 Season Record – 2nd in Eastern Conference, 1st in Metropolitan
Post-Season Record – 2nd round loss to New York Rangers 3-4




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2013/14 Season Recap

It was pretty much business as usual in Pittsburgh. Another 100+ points season and playoff appearance; another disappointing playoff performance and early exit. But the most common word uttered in Pittsburgh last season was ‘injured’.

There were jokes at the start of the season that Pens fans had made a pact with the Devil to stop Sidney Crosby from getting any injuries.  By the end of the season it was less of a joke and more a serious concern – that in keeping major injury away from Crosby, the bad mojo had been passed onto the rest of the team.

The team played through some major injuries, and perhaps it should be noted that they maintained a winning percentage with a roster patched up with AHL players and not a small amount of crossed fingers. But despite the effort, or perceived lack thereof, it was decided that enough was enough and the result was the firing of Head Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero.  They were replaced by Jim Rutherford (GM) and Mike Johnston (Coach), along with some familiar Pens faces in Rick Tocchet and Billy Guerin.

Projected Roster

Chris Kunitz Sidney Crosby Pascal Dupuis
Blake Comeau Evgeni Malkin Patric Hornqvist
Steve Downie Brandon Sutter Beau Bennett
Marcel Goc Nick Spaling Craig Adams
Christian Ehrhoff Kris Letang
Rob Scuderi Paul Martin
Robert Bortuzzo Olli Maatta
Marc-Andre Fleury
Thomas Greiss
Jeff Zatcoff (G)
Simon Depres
Zach Sill

Top Call-Up Options

Forward Jayson Megna
Defense Brian Dumoulin
Goal Jeff Deslauriers

Top Prospects

1. Kasperi Kapanen (F)

2. Derrick Pouliot (D)

3. Tristan Jarry (G)

Key Additions

  • Patric Hornqvist (trade with NSH)
  • Nick Spaling (trade with NSH)
  • Christian Ehrhoff (FA)

Key Subtractions

  • James Neal (trade with NSH)
  • Brooks Orpik (FA to WSH)
  • Matt Niskanen (FA to WSH)
  • Jussi Jokinen (FA to FLA)

Roster Thoughts

There are many big changes this year, and with a new coach and GM, there’s very little certainty about who will stay and if they do, where they will play. The only line that could remain the same from last season is also the one that should remain the same. Even with Pascal Dupuis’ injury last year and his lack of game play, there is little doubt that a 1st line of Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Pascal Dupuis will be the norm. Over the last few seasons that line has been by far the most natural and intuitive line, with the points production to back that up.

Last season saw terrible performances and points production from the 3rd and 4th lines and it was clear that changes needed to be made. Most of those two lines have departed, but with cap space particularly limited, Pittsburgh weren’t able to spend big. With a large number of key players heading into unrestricted free agency and little cash to afford to keep them, the Pens said goodbye to key defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to huge contracts with the Washington Capitals.

Evgeni Malkin’s linemates both departed – Jussi Jokinen to Florida, and James Neal in a trade to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. While Patric Hornqvist should be a relatively good replacement for Neal in terms of power-play productivity and scoring, it’s unlikely he’ll develop the level of chemistry that Neal and Malkin had.  I’m not sure he has the same class of shot that Neal has either. Spaling, on the other hand, should provide a much needed upgrade to the third or fourth line. Who will eventually settle on Malkin’s left wing is unknown. Malkin is yet to skate with the team this off-season due to an undisclosed injury, and chances are we’ll be heading into the first game of the season (if Malkin plays it) trialling the position on the go. Newly acquired Blake Comeau has shown good things in pre-season and may be a good fit on Malkin’s wing.

Brandon Sutter was a good resigning from restricted free-agency. Sutter’s productivity was hampered last season with rotating linemates as they moved to patch up each injury-riddled spot, but he shone late in the season and post-season with Brian Gibbons (who alas has departed for Columbus). Sutter and injury-riddled Beau Bennett were showing very nice chemistry in post-season until Bennett went down to an injury in practice. If he’s back soon, that third line with newly acquired Steve Downie on the left should be a big improvement.

At the moment the fourth line is a work in progress. Marcel Goc was a free-agency pick up during last season. He was also hit with injury (unsurprisingly), but has taken a pay-cut to stay with the team this year. He’s worth the money for his faceoff percentages alone. Penguin stalwart Craig Adams, who makes up for his lack of scoring with his ability to play full seasons without injury, is staying on, and likely will still be seen on the fourth line which potentially Nick Spaling will centre. Spaling should be a very useful player, who may be shifted up the lines to work wings… in fact expect him to move up at the start of the season to cover the injuries we already have! There are, however, a lot of other useful players in the camp at the moment who are looking to make a spot for themselves. Zach Sill has shown promise for a number of years with Wilkes-Barre, and rookie first round draft pick Kasperi Kapanen could make a spot for himself as he gains experience.

The defence was marred by major injuries last season, with all top four defensemen out for protracted periods, much of it at the same time. What the Penguins have good resilience in is defence, and they pulled it together. With the departure of Brooks Orpik, it’s likely that Robert Bortuzzo will play the physical role for the team, but he’ll be out injured for the start of the season [sigh]. Paul Martin, Kris Letang and newly acquired Christian Ehrhoff will likely battle it out for power play duties. We’ll be looking to Ehrhoff especially to calm things down at the back. New coach Mike Johnston has already reported that he’ll be expecting the Ds to bring the puck out of the zone more and into the attacking zone, so expect some high-scoring defensemen this year. Olli Maatta is in his second year, and hopefully will continue where he left off, although when his season will start is up in the air – yes, you guessed it, it’s down to injury – as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Marc-Andre Fleury is in the last year of his current contract. Although solid most of the time during the season he does have a reputation for falling apart in the playoffs, but should still be seen as a top-mark goalie. Jeff Zatkoff stood in admirably last season with Tomas Vokoun injured, but insurance has been brought in with Thomas Greiss, who has shown some good moves in pre-season.

I’m hoping the roster will be stable this year. Because last season there was one team award that I wouldn’t want to win again – the most man games lost to injury at 529 (108 more than the next team). Given the team’s performance amid the injuries, many to key players, that the top players maintained their effort for the team to reach 100 points is a good sign going forward. Hopefully the new team can do the same, but with the first game of the season looming, the injury list is already long enough!

Key Player

It’s hard to pick anyone other than Sidney Crosby for the Penguins key player, especially when the league and the players both voted him MVP last season.  The Pens didn’t lose a single game in regulation last season when he scored more than one point, and only lost 8 in regulation when he only put up a single point.  That he topped the list of number of multi-point games was a major reason for the Pens making the playoffs amid the injuries, although his workload was significant.  He was the league scoring leader by a good margin and if he stays healthy this season he’ll likely be a strong contender for a second consecutive Art Ross.  Last season the slew of injuries upped his minutes and he centred pretty much all four lines at one point or other.  I’m expecting his minutes to come down this year (injury permitting).

If Crosby does go down with an injury, then the load will shift to Evgeni Malkin.  Having two of the best centres in the game on the team means that expectations are high.  Malkin is naturally gifted, and a franchise player in his own right.  When Crosby has been injured in the past, Malkin has stepped up to lead the team, taking home his own Art Ross without Crosby’s figures to chase.  He’s had his share of injuries though, last year notably, and at time of writing is yet to take to the ice with the team.

Defensively, Christian Ehrhoff will be looked towards to keeping the blue liners calm and solid, and for the odd goal here and there.  Whether he’ll be as productive as Niskanen was last season we can but hope.  If Kris Letang manages an injury (and illness) free season then there’s the chance that he’ll be one of the top scoring Ds in the league.

2014/15 Expectations

Expectations will always be for another Cup in Pittsburgh. That’s not an easy feat these days, but if the Pens don’t make the playoffs expect an outcry of epic levels and a 2015-16 team that no-one will recognise. The Penguins have made the playoffs for the last eight seasons. Nobody expects anything less than that this year.

People said last season that the Pens didn’t have any heart, that their will to win was lost and morale was low. I don’t believe that any NHL player doesn’t want to win and won’t try their hardest to get there. I do believe that the pressure on the team, and the long season of injuries, took their toll. There won’t be any less pressure this season, but hopefully there will be a freshness to the regime and to the locker room that the off-season changes have brought. The players said they wanted to get back to enjoying the game again. Hopefully that will be the case.

There were observations last post-season that many opponents “took liberties” with the Pens top players. Since the departure of players like Matt Cooke and Deryk Engelland (and that contract with the Flames is still a point of amusement/amazement), the team was without an enforcer. Enter Steve Downie. Downie has already said in interview that no-one will be taking those liberties with Crosby or Malkin on his watch. The hockey world has long memories and Pens fans remember Downie’s intentional knee hit on Crosby in 2010. I’ll expect to see him in the penalty box, and if he manages to get through the season without at least one suspension I’ll be surprised.

The much hated ‘dump and chase’ manoeuvre that Bylsma seemed to practice hopefully has died and been well and truly cremated in pre-season under Mike Johnston’s regime. From what little we’ve seen, Johnston much prefers to use defensemen to take the puck out of the zone. Hopefully this will be good practice once the season kicks off.

Johnston has also declared that they need to take the pressure off of Crosby and Malkin. Crosby’s minutes last season were among the highest for any forward. Crosby has enough pressure without having to carry the team’s entire offence, so this news was happily received. With strength added to the third and fourth lines, Crosby’s minutes should drop naturally. Johnston has also declared that the top players will need to play some of their minutes on the penalty kill. We’ll see how long that lasts before a top line forward is out from blocking a shot, but it’s not a bad move if looking for the odd short-handed goal or a 1st/2nd line rush at the end of the penalty.

Last year the Pens PP and PK units were among the best in the league, the Pens PP finishing top, the PK 5th. While there have been some departures from last season’s PP units, with the Two-Headed Monster (Crosby and Malkin) on it, along with net-crashers Kunitz and Hornqvist, I don’t expect the productivity of the unit to decrease much.

The big question at the beginning of the season is how swiftly the team will settle in. Hopefully it will be pretty quick… injuries permitting of course.

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