For the past few years now we've known about the depth of the Penguins down the middle. In a way it started with Sidney Crosby, developed a bit more with Evgeni Malkin and solidified itself with Jordan Staal. Granted we had a few positional changes from time to time with two of those guys, but for the most part all three of those names are locks for playing down the middle for the Pens.
In recent years, the Pens front office has also made a conscious effort to develop a bit more in the defensive end. Ray Shero showed this by drafting defensemen high in the draft in two of the last three years. While far too early to solidify his "right" or "wrong" decision on those players, the rapid advancement of a guy like Simon Despres tells us all something we've already known: Shero's the Man.
But what about goaltending? For the past eight seasons we've witnessed the ups and downs of Marc-Andre Fleury's career. Yet we've also seen a number of back-up goaltenders come and go, and even a few "system" guys disappear off the map completely.
We'll focus on just a small area of recent history, seeing as how it more or less plays a part in the spin-it-forward angle with the more recent element of Pittsburgh's goaltending depth.
If we start with the 2007-08 season, when the Pens really started to become contenders for the Cup, you'll see a few names that are no longer with the team: Dany Sabourin and Ty Conklin. While the latter of the two went on to put up some solid numbers for Pittsburgh before his career hit the skids a bit, Sabourin was not so fortunate. He was one of those "I hope he just posts a .500 record" sort of guys. Now he's playing for the Washington Capitals, which obviously means he is going to shut the Penguins out every single time the two teams meet. That's just how things bounce for the Pens, right? Nevertheless, Conklin and Sabourin combined for 28 of Pittsburgh's 47 wins that season.
Now let's look at 2008-09. A few different players jumped between the pipes for the Pens that season: Marc-Andre Fleury, Dany Sabourin, Mathieu Garon, John Curry. At quick glance none of those guys outside of Fleury is still with the team or in the system. That goes to show you a few things: 1) If you weren't grateful for Fleury now, you should be and 2) Backups come and go with regularity. There's no question that Fleury carried the team that season with a 35-18-7 record, especially when you consider Sabourin, Garon and Curry combined for a record of 10-10-2.
In 09-10 we had a few more faces pop up, including the legendary Alexander Pechurskiy. Curry had his number called on the rar eoccasions, but his 12.50 GAA would suggest it was best to go with some other options. So at the time there couldn't have been a better offseason acquisition than Brent Johnson, even if a few little injuries cropped up here or there. One again it was MAF doing the dirty work, but BJ registered a respectable 10-6-1 record.
Last year is probably the first year since Fleury started to really hit his stride that the Pens had to rely on the bench and system a bit more to provide some reinforcements (not counting the 2007-08 ankle injury). Correction: capable reinforcements. The support for Johnson was so great at times that we even witnessed slght hints of a starting goaltender battle. At least, that's what most of the media and fans would want you to believe. Fact is, it was MAF's job and he wasn't about to lose it regardless of his slow start. Johnson was a more than sufficient backup and it certainly comes as a relief knowing he will resume that role once again this season. We've said it a number of times on the site this season, but if Fleury had a better start to the season there is little question he would have cracked 40 wins.
So now we are forced to look at the depth of the team a bit more. With Curry leaving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this offseason in favor of international work, Brad Thiessen will carry the torch and set himself up for a prime opportunity to join the parent club in 2011-12. If we're talking about depth, then the Pens basically roll three deep with Fleury, Johnson and Thiessen. But outside of that, should circumstances require it, they might be better off looking elsewhere for an experienced netminder.
At 26 years old, Fleury is officially hitting the peak of his career, a phrase that could potentially be very scary for the rest of the league considering how much he has accomplished in this short span. He's also under contract through the 2014-15 season, so this isn't exactly a case where the Pens are faced with replacing an aging goaltender whose contract is up in the air. But past evidence has shown you need a formidable backup, sometimes more than one. Johnson is reliable but he's also a bit on the fragile side. This has unfortunately been something that has lingered over the last few years for BJ and it's likely not going to change anytime soon.
While I'm not about ready to go out on a limb and say Fleury will get injured, I'm sure every team is prepared to account for such possibilities. With that said, we may see Thiessen on the bench for a few games this year and perhaps even in the crease if the Pittsburgh front office is left with few options in the wake of injuries and looking to bank on the idea of promoting him next season.
Mattias Modig is a depth prospect for the Pens. He played only a handful of games for the Wheeling Nailers last season, finishing 3-6 with a 3.27 GAA. He's logged plenty of experience overseas in Sweden it's safe to say that he's hardly ready to crack the Pens lineup during the regular season. And even on the extremely rare possibility that he does, it would have to be somewhere along the course of events that led to Pechurskiy's debut.
Scott Munroe is another guy in the system who will likely log a few minutes in the AHL. Before playing in the KHL last season, Munroe tallied five seasons in the AHL with the Philadelphia Phantoms and Bridgeport Soundtigers. In the event that Thiessen suits up for the parent club, whether it be a start or a bench spot, Munroe might benefit by earning some more playing time in WBS.
Patrick Killeen is the final guy we'll mention on the goaltending depth chart, yet again another Wheeling guy. Last season Killeen went 19-16-2, earning three shutouts along the way. At 21 he's certainly on the younger side of the Penguins' development spectrum, so the front office may take a slow and steady approach and possibly consider whether or not he will move up to WBS next season based on the shuffling of goaltenders at that level.
So there you have it: Pittsburgh's goaltending depth. Do they have it? Yes, yes they do. But it certainly carries with it some regimented boundaries at each level. By that I mean, each guy in the system is suited to play at the level he's at right now. You won't see Killeen suiting up for the Pens in October, just like you probably won't see Thiessen suit up in Wheeling. If any single player is on the fringe it would be Thiessen, and justifiably so. The guy's been with the Baby Pens for three seasons and posted a stellar 35-8-1 record for WBS last year.
As for the latter part of the question, do they need it? No, not yet at least. But let's be honest; it doesn't hurt to have it. We've seen in just last year alone how quickly injuries can decimate a club. Thankfully Fleury and Johnson were the only two guys who really needed to be relied on last season between the pipes. As an added bonus they also stayed healthy (for the most part) throughout.
But you never can be too safe, and it doesn't hurt to have a few guys on hand for the future either.