Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, 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 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
PUCK DROP PREVIEW: 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins
Heading into the 2014-15 campaign, the Penguins fired GM Ray Shero and Head Coach Dan Bylsma. Jim Rutherford replaced Shero and Mike Johnston replaced Bylsma. They also traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished with a record of 43-27-12, good enough for 98 points and the second wild card spot in the east. The Pens took an early exit in the playoffs, losing to the New York Rangers in four games in the first round.
The club’s season was plagued with injuries. Pascal Dupuis, Olli Maatta, Blake Comeau, Christian Ehrhoff, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Beau Bennett all missed a significant amount of games. Sidney Crosby led the team in scoring as per usual. In 77 games he managed 28 goals and 84 points. Malkin registered more than a point a game with 70 points in 69 games. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a remarkable year. He posted 10 shutouts and a .920 save percentage.
Rutherford made some big moves over the offseason. He dealt prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Phil Kessel. Rutherford also landed Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks for Brandon Sutter.
The Penguins also added 25-year-old former KHLer Sergei Plotnikov. Malkin played with Plotnikov last spring at the World Championships. Former Washington Capital Eric Fehr also signed in Pittsburgh.
Without a pick in the first round at the NHL Entry Draft, the Penguins drafted right-winger Daniel Sprong 46th overall in the second round.
2015-16 OPENING DAY LINEUP
David Perron – Sidney Crosby – Phil Kessel
Chris Kunitz – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Sergei Plotnikov – Nick Bonino – Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cullen – Eric Fehr – Beau Bennett
Olli Maatta – Kris Letang
Rob Scuderi – Ian Cole
Adam Clendening – Derrick Pouliot
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Plotnikov was an interesting signing for the Penguins. The winger will likely make his debut on their third line but he does have top-six potential. Last season, the 25-year-old scored 15 goals and 36 points in 56 games in his sixth season in the KHL. Plotnikov is a two-way player with a big frame. While some argue that Plotnikov will never be a top-six forward in the NHL, others think he’s a late bloomer. However, Plotnikov should have no problem playing in North America.
ON THE RISE
Last season should have been a breakout one for the two-way defenseman; however, Maatta recorded only 20 games (and nine points) due to injury. This season, if healthy, the 21-year-old will log some big minutes for the Penguins. Maatta has great size and offensive instincts, plays a smart game in all three zones and Pittsburgh’s defense will count on him playing a large role this year.
ON THE DECLINE
Over his tenure in Pittsburgh, Kunitz has made his living playing to the left of Crosby. Now, it looks like the 35-year-old left-winger is struggling to keep up with no. 87. Last season looked like the beginning of the end Kunitz’s hockey career. His offensive production took a big hit and he struggled to capitalize on scoring chances. After netting 35 goals and adding 33 assists in 78 games in 2013-13, he went on to put up only 17 goals and 40 points in 74 outings last season. Towards the end of last season, Perron, who found chemistry with Sid, took his spot on the first line. Kunitz will likely find himself playing on the second line beside Malkin. Plotnikov, however, could even send him further down the depth chart.
The 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins will boast one of the most dangerous groups of forwards that the league has to offer. The presence of Bonino and Kessel will add lots of depth to their already impressive depth chart. If healthy, the Pens offense could rival that of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
However, no matter how impressive this team is up front, their back end presents a huge question mark. Maatta and Letang are each coming off of injury-plagued seasons.
Their support cast isn’t strong either. The pens blueline is significantly young and will rely on players like Cole and Pouliot to make big steps this season. If the Pens run into health problems like they did last season, they may have to rush young players into the roster. Goaltending won’t be an issue. Fleury is coming off of a career year should be strong enough to take his club to the playoffs.
The Penguins will have the opportunity in the wide-open Eastern Conference to regain prominence in the NHL. Crosby and Malkin aren’t getting any younger so the time is now for the Pittsburgh Penguins.