"Thin line between heaven and here" -- Bubbles, The Wire
What America's favorite drug addled, cop snitching addict with a heart of gold meant was, it's not far between those who have it made in life, and those fighting a losing battle against violence and crime in the structure and socio-economic realities that come with living in America today. Aside from that messy debate, what's it got to do with the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Well, I'm about to present you some bubbles, and it's a fine line between being a deep, solid team and one that struggles.
2014 playoff team
(players who have left for one reason or another with a manual strike out for greater effect)
There are some exceptions (like Paul Martin, James Neal, Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen) but pretty much every player the Penguins have shed have by and large been their worst players. And, if not for that pesky salary cap, they surely would have wanted to keep Martin, Niskanen and Jokinen.
In fact, except for Rob Scuderi (who has a believed unmoveable bad contract), the Penguins have parted ways with every single bad possession player (red bubble) that they had 1 year ago. That's really encouraging, as there's no real reason to hold on to players that aren't helping to support Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang to compete for a championship.
Current day Penguins
(New acquisitions denoted with a sloppy star)
Aside from some of the young players who ought to improve with time (Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust), pretty much all the new faces are solid (blue) possession players. Or at least do a pretty good job of staying afloat despite tough zone-starts (left on the axis) like Nick Bonino, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole.
A lot of fans don't like to just look at charts and graphs and bubbles to determine who is a good hockey player, and for good reason. The above doesn't paint a full or complete picture.
But it does show a fairly dramatic change in philosophy and mindset among the Penguins brass over the past year. Perhaps a lot of this would have happened anyways- it certainly would have been difficult to be worse- but the surrounding cast for the Pens stars in 2015 is looking like it will be a lot stronger than we have seen in previous years.
How do Crosby and Malkin fit?
In the past for playoff series when Crosby and/or Malkin (who are ridiculously 6th and 12th, respectively, ALL TIME in career playoff points per game [min 65 games]) haven't come through with production, Pittsburgh has been sunk. Dead in the water. The problem isn't that Crosby and Malkin have failed the Penguins, it's that they've had little to no support. Now, more than ever there's reason to have confidence that other players can and should be of more use.
Balanced, deep and talented teams go far in the playoffs. We've seen this first-hand with the Chicago Blackhawks when guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews don't score much in a particular playoff series, their depth players have stepped up and come through. The Penguins adding guys like Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron, Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino give Pittsburgh a lot more collective skill throughout the lineup than the past. Better players means a better chance of the supporting cast actually giving some tangible support.
The questions that remain
There will be more factors in play and plenty more questions. Will the depth players named above actually contribute when they will be needed most? Can the young defensemen like Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and maybe Adam Clendening stay healthy and make strides at the NHL level? Will Marc-Andre Fleury stay consistent and continue to provide above-average goaltending (and his sterling PK save %)? Can younger fresh faces like Sergei Plotnikov, Scott Wilson and Oskar Sundqvist provide anything of benefit? These are all worth wondering, and there's no clear answers at this point.
What is clear and shown is that the Penguins have improved their team and become more balanced top to bottom. They've made necessary, and sometimes painful changes to try and improve. Now comes the tough part to wait 2+ more months for the season to start.