Today is the first step in the 1,000 mile journey that will be the 2014-15 NHL season. It's the first day of training camp, all the players have reported and the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to prepare for the 82 grind of the regular season, followed by the great unknown of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Only one team will end up victorious, and ultimately it will be nothing but disappointment for 29 others, but that doesn't mean the journey won't be one worth following. Behold, the top five things to figure out for the Pens training camp.
#1 New coach, new results?
As we all know, Mike Johnston is in for his first job as NHL head coach, and looking to put his stamp on the team. How will he fare in the NHL? Will his tactics slide over seamlessly? Will there be any obvious differences in styles from the past? How does he sort out the lines and try the seemingly impossible task to keep things fresh and fun for a team with a lot of pressure, expectations and stress? Johnston seems ready and excited to get going with an open mind, saying yesterday, ""I have a pretty clean slate. I want to see what these players are going to show me."
The Post-Gazette has a nice article about Johnston's personnel combos and things he's interested in trying, so we'll see. He hints at a potential Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist line, which would be interesting, to say the least. (And who does that leave for Geno?)
#2 Revamped depth
Change is inevitable for an NHL roster and the Penguins had a ton of turnover among their much maligned bottom six. Steve Downie, Nick Spaling and Blake Comeau are in- all in their 20's and Downie and Comeau are former 20+ NHL goal guys. Marcel Goc and Brandon Sutter are back as centers, and Craig Adams will presumably suit 'em up for one more go round.
Then there are outliers trying to crack the roster out of camp. Jayson Megna, Adam Payerl, Zach Sill, Dominik Uher all have realistic outside chances if they earn it, and tryout and NHL veteran crazyman Daniel Carcillo is lurking in the shadows to add some of the "grit and toughness" that Penguins ownership wanted to see.
#3 Return of Dupuis
Pascal Dupuis was actually in something of a slow start in the beginning of last season, but in his absence over the final half of the season, the Penguins were a mess. Neither Lee Stempniak nor Brian Gibbons could successfully fill the Dupuis-sized hole at first line right wing and the Pens penalty kill also slumped from first in the league to ending the season at 5th. Dupuis is now 35 years of age, on a rebuilt knee and it remains to be seen how much more he has in the tank. The Pens will need it to be quite a bit left in order to make an impact.
#4 Chaos in net
GM Jim Rutherford shook up the most stable position on the team, goaltender, when he signed free agent Thomas Greiss. Recently Greiss has had some very impressive stats, but hasn't had a huge sample size. Last season he also posted an impressive .920 save percentage in 25 games in what's become a goalie's haven in Phoenix. Greiss will battle Jeff Zatkoff, who had a .912 save percentage in his rookie year in the NHL. If Greiss emerges as the #2 player on the depth chart, it will be interesting to see how many starts he is given and how he handles playing in a more offensive-minded team in Pittsburgh.
And, of course, this all looms with Marc-Andre Fleury in the final year of a contract that won't be extended any time soon. How Fleury's confidence and mentality holds up might be a bigger key than it should be, but as always, is worth monitoring.
#5 New look defense
How is it the Pens lost two "top 4" defensemen in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, but still seemingly have no roster spot open for both Brian Dumoulin and Simon Despres? Teams needs depth and fans need patience with prospects, but with the fortunate signing of Christian Ehrhoff, the Pens blueline probably isn't as young or inexperienced as most people might think upon first glance.
Between Ehrhoff, Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang and Paul Martin the Pens four most veteran defensemen have a combined 29 seasons worth of games played, adding a lot of experience for the rest of the younger players (like Despres, Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo) to lean on through the season.
And with a new coach, new strategies and 2, if not 3 new combination of defense pairs, the group will have to mesh together in camp to prepare for the long season ahead.