Justin K. Aller
Our comprehensive look at the new faces, departures, the lines, 3 strengths and weaknesses and a season prediction.
The Penguins finished the regular season 51-25-6 with 108 points in the standings, just one point behind the division champion New York Rangers, which created a 4/5 matchup versus the Flyers. The Penguins would take the Flyers to six games, but struggled to hold leads and keep pace with the Flyers’ offense, forcing another early exit in the playoffs. With the offseason longer than normal due to the lockout, it left fans anxious for seeing what and when would be next for the team.
Who's in for 2013
Twenty-three-year-old Brandon Sutter has played 286 NHL games and has the size, smarts and ability to be an ideal third-line center. His stats won’t be as impressive as the man he is replacing (Staal), but you can pencil him in for 20 goals, 15 assists and solid all-around play. The ex-Hurricane is going to be an essential part of the team moving forward and, though he has large shoes to fill on the third line, he should perform and produce admirably.
The Penguins’ goaltending issues late in the season – Fleury’s poor play in the playoffs and Brent Johnson’s failure to be a trustworthy fallback – meant an upgrade at the back-up goalie position was a priority during free agency. The Penguins’ brass wasted little time by trading for Tomas Vokoun’s rights and signing him before July 1. Vokoun surprised many in the summer of 2011 when he signed a one-year deal for just $1.5 million with a contending team in the Washington Capitals. After spending several years behind below-average offensive teams in Florida and Nashville, Vokoun sacrificed a payday for an opportunity to win. However, Vokoun failed to get into a rhythm with the Capitals. He suffered an injury late in the regular season, giving rookie Braden Holtby the chance to excel in the playoff spotlight. Jumping ship to Pittsburgh, Vokoun will again have the chance to play behind a top team. While it’s acknowledged that Marc-Andre Fleury is the franchise goalie, the Vokoun signing could lead to a media (and fan)-fuelled controversy over the top spot the moment Fleury has a less-than-stellar performance. The door is wide open in a shortened season, but teams don’t often play their second-best goalie when the game counts. Vokoun will get the chance to show he’s the best option in net.
Tanner Glass had the 10th-most hits in the league last season with 246. Aside from his physicality, he chipped in 5 goals, 16 points and 73 penalty minutes for the Jets. He’s an energy player that will hit, fight, and work to control the puck down low. He brings some grit to the bottom six forwards, which will be a welcomed addition for a team that can use a little more muscle. He’ll be a fan favorite for his aggressive style of play, and given his physical style and forecheck, he’s poised to be a favorite of Bylsma, too. Just because he’ll drop the gloves doesn’t always mean he’ll win, though. According to the scorers at hockeyfights.com, Glass has a record of 3 wins, 9 losses, and 5 draws in his past two seasons.
At a crossroads in his career and an expiring contract, Staal decided he no longer wanted to be third-string to Crosby and Malkin. After six seasons, Staal deserves the chance for a more offensive role, which awaits him at the Carolina Hurricanes. For the Pens, they have to replace a possession monster who was by far their best forward defensively at even-strength and on the penalty kill. Sutter will step in, and maybe the Pens will utilize Crosby in a two-way role (similar to the shift Steve Yzerman made later in his career). Predictions aside, there’s no doubt that Staal leaves a huge hole in the Penguins lineup. Pittsburgh was able to get a great return with three solid assets (Sutter and defensemen prospects Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot) but the loss of Staal will be one noticed every time the Pens need a strong defensive shift or start a penalty kill without big #11 taking the faceoff.
After battling through a hip injury, Michalek never seemed to get comfortable in Pittsburgh. Michalek didn’t quite fit Bylsma’s system, so the Pens ultimately traded him back to Phoenix. Pittsburgh only received picks/prospects and salary relief in the trade, so they’ll have to fill Michalek’s shoes with increased roles for guys like Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and perhaps even the youngster Simon Despres. GM Ray Shero knew the salary cap would probably be more restrictive in the new CBA, (and he was right since the cap will be down to $60 million next year) so dumping Michalek’s $4 million dollar cap hit seemed like an inevitable move.
Sullivan enjoyed a great and healthy season, scoring 48 points in 79 games for the Pens. Where Sullivan will be missed the most is more subtle than strictly his goals or assists. On the power play, Sully often carried the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone - a unique and tricky role to fill that the Penguins have really lacked since Sergei Gonchar’s departure. Though skill guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are capable of rushing the puck, none have really become the true go-to powerplay quarterback. In Sullivan’s absence, someone is going to have to step into that role.
Asham signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers, joining ex-Penguin forward Mike Rupp in Manhattan. Asham brought fourth-line forward energy and some fisticuffs to Pittsburgh, and Glass will be counted on to fill that. Asham was also suspended in the playoffs for a high-hit on Brayden Schenn similar to what the Penguins have publicly said they want out of the game, so at that point it became obvious that Pittsburgh probably wasn’t going to bring Asham back. Asham - though not a scorer by any means - did have some underrated puck handling and was a very good teammate, but plugging fourth-line forwards are plentiful at the NHL level.
Park signed in Switzerland prior to the lockout, a good move for an older forward who might not have returned to the NHL. His 7 goals and 14 points in 54 games was welcomed from a fourth-line center position, a role now that Joe Vitale has shown he’s capable of handling full-time.
After two great years in Pittsburgh, Johnson’s game regressed in 2011-12. His coach never really had the confidence that he could stop the puck, and even as the Pens’ season unraveled through Fleury’s poor play, Johnson was never much a trusted backup option. When the backup is that much of a liability it becomes necessary to replace him, which is a shame given that Johnson is one of the best pros and teammates around. Johnny has been a mainstay in the Penguin players informal practices at Southpointe and is still hoping to get a call from an NHL team. Here’s hoping he gets a tryout somewhere and has success to close out his career (except against his most recent former team, of course).
Simply put, no team in the league can match the offensive depth the Pittsburgh Penguins have when they trot out Evgeni Malkin on one line and then follow it up with Sidney Crosby on the next. If a team has one MVP caliber offensive player, they are lucky. The Penguins have two guys who very easily could win the scoring title in the league, and the betting odds say one of them will. Scoring is the name of the game, and Pittsburgh boasts arguably the two best centers in the game when they’re healthy.
2) Strong organization from top to bottom
The team is built to win. In the three full seasons under Dan Bylsma they have 47, 49 and 51 wins. They have the talent and depth to be near the top of the standings and success is expected. The ownership is solid and willing to spend to the salary cap. General management has its hand on the pulse and makes in-season trades to boost, never hurt, the team in the short-term. The coach, though embattled in some fans’ minds, has an established system that plays to the team’s depth, strengths and has been very successful in regular season, even when several key players have been injured.
3) Penalty killing
In the past three seasons, the Pens have finished 3rd, 1st and 9th in the PK % totals league-wide. Subtracting Jordan Staal will hurt, but the core of the PK up front (Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams) remains and guys like Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale are capable of taking on bigger roles as well. The team concept of keeping the puck to the outside and away from high-scoring zones has worked well. They’ve gotten good goalie play and zone clearing attempts from defensemen. The unit is well coached and has gotten results in the past and should continue to be a consistent team strength.
1) Lack of Internal replacements Aside from Sutter subbing in for Staal, the fact there are no obvious replacements for Steve Sullivan and Zbynek Michlek means bigger roles (potentially) for guys like Dustin Jeffrey, Eric Tangradi, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland. The Penguins, though deep offensively and defensively, aren’t a complete and traditional team with six great skilled players and four “top four” defensemen. On paper, the 2012-13 Pens aren’t as good as the 2011-12 Pens. Games aren’t played on paper, of course, but the team still has some holes to address.
Malkin, Neal, Dupuis, Cooke and Chris Kunitz all had career highs in major offensive categories last season. Career highs are called that because they don’t happen every single year. Though all should have solid seasons, there’s reason to believe the marks they scored at last season might drop off some (and not just because we won’t have 82 games to compare). The Pens hope that Crosby’s full return will help boost guys and help point scoring totals for the team, which is reasonable, but it’s also not reasonable to assume the success some players had will repeat again.
3) Built-in goalie controversy
When you pay a veteran $2 million to be your backup with the resume that Tomas Vokoun has, it’s going to be a hot-seat for the starting spot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the pressure from fans and media will be heating up with every mistake that Marc-Andre Fleury makes. How will this play out down the stretch?
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Pascal Dupuis
Eric Tangradi/Dustin Jeffrey/Beau Bennett – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Matt Cooke – Brandon Sutter – Tyler Kennedy
Tanner Glass – Joe Vitale – Craig Adams
Matt Niskanen / Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik / Paul Martin
Ben Lovejoy / Deryk Engelland
Brian Strait / Robert Bortuzzo
Crosby returns with his "usual" wingers, and the spot with Malkin-Neal will be a wide-open competition with no obvious or permanent solution visible. Coach Dan Bylsma hinted this week he would pair Orpik/Martin as the team's top defensive-minded unit, but expect them to play Letang early and often, double-shifting him on pairings probably to the tune of 27+ minutes a night. The bottom of the defense is crowded, with a possible trade coming to clear space, since everyone listed would have to clear waivers.
Prediction Pittsburgh should compete seriously for the Atlantic Division championship again. Best case scenario, the Pens win the division and are the top team in the conference, setting them up for the playoffs. Worst case scenario, due to a shortened season, they get involved in a dog-fight for positioning, never gain any separation and battle for one of the bottom playoff spots up until the end of the year. Push comes to shove, we'll take somewhere in the middle for another 4/5 matchup unless Crosby and Malkin can produce the Pens to a division title.