Season Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Once upon a time, Pittsburgh were destined to be the next great NHL dynasty.

A trip to the Final in 2008 was followed by a Cup win 12 months later, but further success failed to materialise.

Despite dominating during the regular season, elimination at the hands of New York in the Conference semi-finals cost Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero their jobs.

With new hands at the helm, changes along the blue line and the best player in the world, can Pittsburgh rise to the top again?

Or has hitching the wagon to a small handful of guys taken them down a path they simply can’t recover from?

Up Front

If your offensive spearhead comprises of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, you’re doing ok!

Crosby passed 100 points for the fifth time last season, collecting his second Hart Trophy and second Art Ross along the way, while Malkin still registered 72 points despite missing 22 games.

The big Russian may miss the start of the new season through injury, but the pair represent the most formidable 1-2 punch in the league.

The supporting cast still leave a little to be desired however.

Chris Kunitz had a career best 35 goals last season, with the former Ducks wingers inclusion in Team Canada’s Olympic squad proving contentious to say the least. The 35-year old has established good chemistry with Crosby, and the return of Pascal Dupuis from knee surgery gives the Pens top line additional scoring punch.

Patric Hornqvist arrives from Nashville, with James Neal heading to Tennessee. The Swedish winger was consistently one of the Predators leading scorers during his time with the club, and should benefit from the opportunity to play with an elite centre like Malkin.

Beyond that, the Penguins line up becomes less impressive.

Brandon Sutter and Marcel Goc are solid, Blake Comeau has had his moments and Steve Downie will inject a little fire in to the line up; but winger Jussi Jokinen, who had 21 goals and 57 points last term, departs – joining Florida on a 4-year deal – while play-off rental Lee Stempniak joins the Rangers.

The end result is that the clubs bottom six, long considered their achilles heel, hasn’t changed in any meaningful way – and the top 6 may even be slightly weaker!

The Pens still have the firepower, but continue to lack depth – something that has cost them in recent years.

At The Back

Pittsburgh’s blue line under went some notable changes this summer; with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen signing with rivals Washington (and Deryk Engelland Calgary bound), while veteran puck mover Christian Ehrhoff joins after parting company with Buffalo.

Along side Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin, the German provides a solid base for the Pens defence – but the organisations burgeoning crop of defensive prospects are the ones with the most to gain from the changes this summer.

Olli Maatta impressed during his rookie season, whilst 20-year old Derrick Pouliot has been on the fringes of the club for the past two seasons and may get a more serious look if the Penguins run in to injury trouble.

Letang’s long term health is under particular scrutiny in this regard. The 27-year old has missed significant time in each of the past three seasons, including suffering a stroke last season.

Between The Pipes

Perhaps the most scrutinised goaltender in the league; Marc-Andre Fleury put together respectable regular season numbers (again) and posted two shut outs and a .915 save percentage in the post season.

Whilst his puck handling misstep against Columbus garnered a collective eye roll from Pittsburgh fans, his efforts last spring were light years ahead of the four straight post season meltdowns he seemed to have following the clubs 2009 Cup win.

Entering the final year of his current contract, the 2003 1st overall picks status as the organisations #1 may be under threat if he stumbles again.

Thomas Greiss comes in to backup the Quebec native, but may have designs on the starting job himself – if he can impress.

Behind The Bench

Former Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston takes the reigns this season.

It’s an unenviable task in many respects – with the Penguins expected to finish at the top of the Division (or at least top 2), he not only has to meet those expectations but also resurrect the clubs post season fortunes after five years of disappointment.

Biggest Addition – Christian Ehrhoff

Joining on a 1-year deal, the 32-year old has an excellent opportunity to prove he can still be a 40+ point blue liner on a top team.

With the Penguins transition game somewhat scrappy while Letang was sidelined last season, Ehrhoff can go along way to boosting the clubs offence and strengthening an already impressive power play.

Biggest Loss – James Neal

Ontario native Neal had three straight 20 goal seasons with the Penguins – potting 88 goals in 179 games with the club.

Whilst most expect Patric Hornqvist to step in without too many issues, the former Dallas winger developed in to one of the leagues top snipers in Pittsburgh.

And on a team so heavily reliant on its top 6, his goals could be missed.

Key Man – Marc-Andre Fleury

It’s easy to pick Sidney Crosby as the Pens key man. The team Captain is a perennial Hart contender and will almost certainly be among the leagues leading scorers again.

But it’s Fleury whose under pressure to prove his worth the the organisation that drafted him, and show he can provide the kind of elite level goaltending that can paper over some cracks elsewhere in the line up.

The Penguins have run in to some strong goaltenders over the years, with Fleury rarely (if ever) able to win the battle – for a club with designs on winning another Stanley Cup, he needs to be better. Or Pittsburgh needs to look elsewhere.

This Seasons Chances…

It’s hard not to worry about the same old issues holding the Pens back. Questions over Letang’s health, Fleury’s form and a lack of depth at forward all linger.

Ehrhoff’s arrival may help resolve one of those issues, but Cup rivals have, mostly, improved and have a defensive back bone you can get behind – Pittsburgh have plugged holes created by further departures, rather than filling gaps in the line up that really needed filling.

It’s hard to rule them out of contention, given their offensive strength when healthy, but the flaws that have led to their downfall previously all remain – making it equally hard to back them as a potential Cup winner heading in to the new season.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on October 4, 2014, in Hockey, NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins, Season Previews 2014 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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