1. How will Mike Johnston's first season as an NHL head coach go?
The biggest wildcard of the Penguins season will be the new faces behind the bench. The caliber of the systems remains untested at the NHL level, from a new staff of first-timers. Mike Johnston, a very successful coach in Juniors and experienced NHL assistant coach, gets his first job as an NHL head coach this year. Early indications is that his strategies will be vastly different than Dan Bylsma, who for his playoff struggles was also the fastest coach to win 250 games in the regular season. Bylsma, of course, was also a first time NHL head coach.
Johnston will stress carrying the puck more, long "stretch passes" less and feature activating defensemen in the rush. Hopefully it will result in giving the team's best offensive players the best positions to control the puck and create scoring chances. However, quietly there have been questions unanswered about Johnston's in-zone defensive strategies and a worry that his aggressive style could result in odd-man rushes against with more defensemen pinching in offensively.
There's also the fear of the unknown- Johnston has never handled a losing streak or a power play slump in the NHL spotlight. His fresh voice and perspective could serve as the proverbial "breath of fresh air", but he is still inexperienced until he goes through the year.
Regardless of how much success the team has, the Pittsburgh Penguins fired a pretty good coach for failing in the playoffs recently. Johnston will be judged strictly on if he can put the players in a position to advance further in the playoffs than they have in the past five years. It's a high bar to surpass and pressure will ramp up at the first sign of adversity. Is he prepared to handle that and adjust as necessary to enable the team the best shot of success?
2. Will Marc-Andre Fleury, in a contract year, provide a different level of play positively or negatively?
Pens general manager Jim Rutherford came out and publicly said he didn't plan on extending Marc-Andre Fleury ‘s contract before the season started. It wasn't unexpected, but it did set the wheels in motion to honestly imagine life without Fleury for the Pens.
For the past decade, goaltender has been a very stable position for the Penguins- Fleury would start 60-70 games and that would be that. A great 2008 season and playoff got him a seven year contract, and since then, he's provided middling overall performance. For save percentage, Fleury is 21st out of 30 goalies in the last 6 seasons that he's played this contract (min 190 games).
Fleury has been even worse in the playoffs, ranking 26th out of 28 goalies in save percentage during his contract (min 15 games). To be fair, this does include his Stanley Cup year, which has to count for something positive. It's impossible to say it's been a terrible contract when he provided enough stops to win a Cup. At the same time, the mounting data is too much to ignore- MAF is at best an average goalie and draws one of the highest salaries on the team.
The Penguins don't currently have an alternate #1 caliber goalie right now. Neither Thomas Greiss nor Jeff Zatkoff have the talent, history and qualifications to be considered bonafide #1 goalies for a playoff contender. Prospects Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are years away, should they even pan out as NHL caliber goalies.
What once was a stable position on the team, is now influx. This might not be the worst thing in the world when you consider that league-wide, goalies change hands frequently. What do Cory Schneider, Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Sergei Bobrovsky, Roberto Luongo, Ben Bishop, Semyon Varlamov and Ryan Miller all have in common (except for being some of the best goalies in the league)? They've all been traded in the recent past, for various reasons.
For this season though, the Pens still have Fleury. He has been mentally rattled before. Now, as a lame duck franchise goalie, what kind of season will he have? Will that motivate him to prove to the Pens (or a free agent suitor) that he can consistently play well and deserves another contract? Or will the pressure mount and shatter his confidence?
3. Have the other teams in the Metropolitan Division made up the difference to pass the Pens?
Last year, despite having a ton of injuries, the Pens easily ran away with the first ever Metropolitan Division championship. Pittsburgh had an impressive 20-8-2 combined record against their division rivals, en route to a 109 point season, 13 points better than the 2nd place New York Rangers.
A new season always brings changes and most observers expect non-playoff teams in Washington (with new coach Barry Trotz) and the Islanders (with new free agent additions and a legit NHL goalie) to be much improved this season.
The Rangers have a ton of depth (and Henrik Lundqvist), they should be a contender for the top of the division. Columbus should be able to continue their upswing if they can re-sign Ryan Johansen. The Flyers and Devils, are well, the Flyers and Devils. They might not look to be great, but are never easy outs- especially in their games with the Pens.
Have any of those teams made up enough ground on the Penguins to seriously challenge them down the stretch? Preseason, on paper, it doesn't really look like it. It will be important for Pittsburgh to live up to expectations and show they still are the top team in the division. There might not be a lot the Pens can prove in the regular season, but finishing first and guaranteeing the home-ice for the first two rounds is one of the few positives they can earn by playing well in the first 82.