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Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Up next is the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Last Year

The Pittsburgh Penguins have earned themselves one of sports’ greatest blessing/curse combinations: nothing other than a championship is good enough for the team at this point. On one hand, that is a frustrating amount of pressure for a squad who now essentially plays 82 meaningless games of hockey a season before the real judgement day arrives. On the other, there is always a good reason that a team is judged in this way.

For Pittsburgh, this includes having the best player in hockey Sidney Crosby, and another likely in the top five in Evgeni Malkin. It is easily the best one-two center punch in the league, and the framework around which the Penguins are expected to build a championship team.

Unfortunately, since 2008-09 the Penguins have consistently fallen short of this lofty target, and last year was no different. For the majority of other teams, a seven game loss to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist New York Rangers would be considered a decent result, for some even a good result. For the Penguins, it meant a major shakeup that saw the dismissals of head coach Dan Bylsma, and long-time General Manager Ray Shero in the off-season.

A big factor in their firings was the fact that the same problems have been the Achilles heel for the Penguins since they won their only post-lockout era Cup. Sure, they have some of the best talents of a generation in their lineup, but they have been unable to put the necessary pieces around this solid frame to reach their potential.

The bottom six forward group has been particularly questionable over the years. Since Jordan Staal and Max Talbot left the team they have been unable to replace that sort of depth down their lineup. Deeper teams, the kind the Penguins have been eliminated by, have preyed on the bottom two lines with plenty of success. The majority of the additions the Penguins made to their forward group over the past couple of years have been wingers to play with Crosby and Malkin, improving what was already fixed instead of focusing on what was broken.

Injuries have been another problem that has really affected the Penguins as of late. The positive note in all of this was that Crosby not only played 80 games, but played 80 fantastic games. It all culminated in a season where he won his second Hart Trophy, his second Art Ross, yet another Ted Lindsay Award, and cemented his place as the league’s best. But the memorable point of his season, like his team, may have come in the playoffs when he only had one goal and was less than effective.

Crosby’s injury demons had to find another host on the Penguins, as always. Evgeni Malkin missed 22 games during the season, although was fantastic in the playoffs. Crosby’s linemate Pascal Dupuis missed more than half the season, as did defenseman Paul Martin. The most affected, however, was Kris Letang.

Considered amongst the best offensive defensemen in the league, Letang was having another solid season before he had a stroke that many believed would be career ending. Thankfully, it appears Letang will in fact be able to return, but it did mean he missed a lot of time and struggled in the playoffs after returning.

In goal there were some positives, as people tend to only remember the last three playoff games for Marc-Andre Fleury and not the sum of his work. Fleury has often been cited as the single biggest factor that has held Pittsburgh back in the past, inconsistent, to say the least, since he once guided this team to the Cup. But with 39 wins, a .915 save percentage, and five shutouts, Fleury reintroduced himself as a capable NHL starter. He didn’t have the best playoffs, where the main part of his faults have been lately, but it also may have been his best post-season performance in recent memory.

Off Season Changes:

It was a massive offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was the changes made in the front office and not the roster that is the biggest talking point and should have the biggest impact.

Tired of being a perennial “good, but just short of the big one” team, the Penguins parted ways with GM Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, the men credited with the inception of this current dynasty in Pittsburgh. In their place, ex-Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and the man at the helm of the recent Portland Winterhawks WHL dynasty and two time World Junior winner, Mike Johnston, as coach.

Rutherford was very quick in addressing the long-time bottom six issue for the team, making several moves. The first, and most notable, was the shedding of star sniper James Neal, the right-hand man for Evgeni Malkin. Coming the other way from Nashville in that deal was Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. While Hornqvist will be the lesser replacement for Neal on top six wing, Spaling insures that the wealth also spreads to the bottom six.

To further shore things up in the bottom six, the team brought in the infamous Steve Downie. While Downie may not have the best reputation on or off the ice, he does have a particular set of talents that could make him a big success for the Penguins. For one, Downie provides the sort of grit and sandpaper that the Penguins have long been lacking in their lineup since Talbot left town. Blake Comeau, another addition, could also add a welcome 30-40 points on a third or fourth line.

These players were brought in to replace a number of forwards who left town over the offseason. This list includes Jussi Jokinen, Brian Gibbons, Chuck Kobasew, Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass.

Another area that the Penguins addressed was the blueline, again largely due to the multitude of players who left town. Gone are such notable Pittsburgh names as Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and, to some degree, Deryk Engelland. The replacements will largely come from within, as the team have several young talents at the back potentially ready to make the jump to the NHL. But in Christian Ehrhoff, the team’s biggest free agent addition, the team brought in a replacement for Niskanen, and then some.

The final notable summer acquisition for the Penguins was Thomas Griess, brought in to help in case Marc-Andre Fleury falters. In a best case scenario, he won’t see all that much time this year, but Fleury is so unpredictable that this could end up being his team. Greiss outplayed Mike Smith in Phoenix for much of last season, so he’s a good insurance policy to have.

Lineup Projections:

Chris Kunitz- Sidney Crosby- Pascal Dupuis

Beau Bennett- Evgeni Malkin- Patric Hornqvist

Nick Spaling- Brandon Sutter- Steve Downie

Blake Comeau- Marcel Goc- Craig Adams

In viewing the Penguins forward lines, it is clearer than ever that they have made significant additions to the lower half of their forward group. A line of Spaling, Sutter and Downie could prove to be a major catalyst for a team who have relied on the top two units far too much in the recent past. On the fourth line, Comeau and Goc add good offensive upside as the Penguins now truly have four decent lines. While Malkin’s unit got a lot weaker without Neal, Hornqvist is a talented player who will do well in his place. Bennett will also be given every opportunity to have a breakout season alongside the pair.

Paul Martin- Kris Letang

Olli Maatta- Christian Ehrhoff

Rob Scuderi- Simon Depres/ Rob Bortuzzo

A lot of people will want to see a high octane top combination of Ehrhoff and Letang, but it makes a lot more sense for the Penguins to spread out their stars. In Martin, Letang will have a steady veteran partner who played very well alongside him in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Ehrhoff will be an ideal mentor for Maatta, who may suffer from a bout of the sophomore slump. The final pairing will be a battle between Depres and Bortuzzo for the chance to play alongside Scuderi. Derrick Pouliot is close, but not ready just yet to crack the lineup.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Thomas Griess

As aforementioned, Griess will play safety net for Fleury, as he takes one last shot at fulfilling his potential in the net for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Should he falter, the 28-year-old Griess will absolutely be ready and experienced enough to handle inheriting this team.

Players to Watch:

  • Steve Downie
  • Marc-Andre Fleury

Downie has always been as troubled as he has been talented but Pittsburgh might just be the place where the 27-year-old finally finds his home. Alongside two very talented players in Spaling and Sutter, Downie will be in good company. Ultimately, he could prove to be the offensive x-factor for the Penguins this season. If he can get anywhere in the vicinity of his career best 50 points, then he will be an excellent investment.

There is no doubt, this is the biggest year of Fleury’s up and down career. The goaltender who has seen his Stanley Cup triumph escape from memory in favour of inconsistent play is in the final year of his contract with the Penguins. He has no choice but to prove that he can finally carry this team to the heights that have been expected of them.

On the Rise:

  • Beau Bennett
  • Brandon Sutter
  • Nick Spaling

It is no coincidence Bennett is the unanimous candidate to get top six minutes alongside Malkin and Hornqvist. To this point Bennett hasn’t fully shown his potential at the NHL level, but the talent is there. If it works out, it could also be a longterm option beside Malkin, as Bennett is only 20 years of age.

It won’t be difficult to him to break his career best of 14 points, expect that to be done before the half way point of the season. He’ll get points simply by virtue of who he plays with. If he can find bonus points on top of that, he could have a huge season statistically.

Sutter has never really lived up to Jordan Staal’s big vacancy at third line center. He hasn’t really even lived up to his potential from the Carolina days either. But this year Sutter finally has some quality talent to work with, and the byproduct is going to be evident. He still won’t be Staal, but if things go right he could absolutely get close.

A big part of the above Sutter projection, is the fact that he will likely play most of his minutes alongside Spaling. The 25-year-old had a career-best year in Nashville last season. With a far more offensively talented Pittsburgh team he can be expected to surpass even those numbers, potentially with around a forty point output.

On the decline:

  • Rob Scuderi
  • Craig Adams
  • Pascal Dupuis

Scuderi feels it was injuries that slowed him down in the 2013-14 season, but it may well just be age. Players of Scuderi’s ilk often have an expiry date somewhere near his current age of 35 years old. He has lost a step and in a game of speed, as hockey has become, that will cost him dearly. He is still capable of playing third pairing minutes, but there is a chance that either Bortuzzo or Depres take his spot before the end of the season.

Age is also catching up with Adams. Long considered one of the notable names on a less than notable Penguins bottom six, Adams has never been much of a scorer. On a team that now appears to be more focused on going forward, he might not be able to keep up. Playing with Goc and Comeau will likely inflate his stats, but Adams is lucky there is little down the line for the Penguins at right wing. Otherwise he likely wouldn’t have a spot on this year’s team.

Make no mistake, playing alongside Crosby will inflate Dupuis’ stats, as it always has, but the fact is that a serious knee injury from last season is making it seem unlikely that he will start this year in full form. The talent is still there and, when healthy, Dupuis has been dangerous. But the health is quickly going with this player and will likely limit his playing time, and effectiveness, this season.

2014-2015 season expectations:

Provided they can stay relatively healthy, the Penguins are quietly a better team than they were last season. They may not have the same star power, but that hardly matters for a team already in possession of two of the league’s brightest. If the bottom six can perform up to its potential, this team could have four dangerous lines, meaning shutting down one of Crosby or Malkin no longer guarantees beating this team.

With the Boston Bruins taking a step back this year, the Penguins might be the favourites in a three horse race between themselves, the Bruins and the Rangers to take the Eastern Conference. The big question mark, as always, will be the goaltending of Fleury. But the contract situation might be just enough to push him to the heights at which the team requires him to be. If they are firing on all cylinders, the Cup is not necessarily out of reach for the Penguins again this season.

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