In the interests of discussing a new topic than the usual madness, let's shift gears briefly for a topic of hope.
It's still August, so everyone is in first place (even the Islanders!). The summer is for dreaming and hopeful projections, so why not make one of our own as these dog days draw to an end?
Who does everyone think on the Pittsburgh Penguins will exceed expectations for the 2014-15 season? Let us know in the comments who and why. My pick might be surprising. And I almost didn't want to pick him, since I wanted to think about a new topic, but ended up at one discussed often this summer.
I'm taking Nick Spaling for the team's breakout player. Ok, gonna wait for the laughter to stop..
Better? Ok, well hear me out. Now, I'm not saying something crazy like the Predators could miss Spaling more than they will miss the more talented Patric Hornqvist, but I think Spaling will get the chance to make his mark in Pittsburgh.
I mean, just look at the Penguins depth chart for left-wingers right now. There's Chris Kunitz (attached to the hip of Sidney Crosby), and then what? Newcomers Hornqvist and Steve Downie are right-handed players better suited on the right wing. Ditto Beau Bennett. Pascal Dupuis is versatile but has almost exclusively been a right winger for the past number of seasons.
Clearly training camp will be the time to jockey things around and find fits, but if the thought hasn't occurred to you yet, I'll throw it out there now. Nick Spaling has a pretty good shot to start the season on the left-side of Evgeni Malkin.
Ex-Preds coach Barry Trotz loved the ability Spaling had to "fix lines". This January, while Spaling was with David Legwand and Craig Smith, playing against other team's top lines, Trotz said:
"One thing you tend to forget is Nick was a skinny guy when he came here. He had good hockey sense, ability-all those things-and we wanted to move him along, move him along. But it's just taken him a while to grow into his own physically. He's found a way to be a really sustainable player, I want to move him off that line sometimes so he can fix other lines, but that line has just been going so good; I don't want to mess a good thing up."
Spaling also finished the season scoring 5 points in 5 games, and ended up with career highs in goals (13) assists (19) and points (32). Those are modest totals, to be sure, but don't forget that Malkin once won a scoring title in 2008-09 with a ragtag mix of aging Petr Sykora (46 points), Ruslan Fedotenko (16g+23a) and Max Talbot (12g+10a) on his wing. Playing with unconventional players wouldn't be anything new there.
Given that expectations for Spaling are all over the board this summer, to me he's a guy who could wind up with Malkin and reasonably have a shot to impress. I'm not saying he's going to score 30 goals, that would be crazy. But it doesn't seem like a huge reach for him to challenge for 20 goals, push for 25 assists and play as a 3rd wheel on the 2nd line and hopefully log some decent PK minutes.
Granted, there's a chance I could be way off the mark, it's a risky pick. Spaling could be nothing more than bottom six filler, or his shooting percentage (which has been 15% the past two seasons) could regress and maybe his boxcar stats stay low, his possession numbers don't improve and no one will ever reference his post again (except to maybe laugh). This possibility is just as large, if not larger, than Spaling making a huge statistical leap and ending up enjoying a Malkin-influenced bump. If new coach Mike Johnston decides Hornqvist or Bennett is his left wing for Malkin, this prediction takes a huge hit, no doubt about it.
On a team full of stars and established players, it's tough to pick a breakout star. It requires going out on a ledge and making a stand. So who cares if it's sure to go wrong, it's still summer and that means everyone has a chance for a great season. Let