The Pittsburgh Penguins are Jim Rutherford’s team, now more than ever. When Rutherford was first brought in, it was assumed that he would initiate a retooling, rather than a rebuild on the fly. However, after just one season under his guidance, the team has five forwards, three defenders and one goaltender remaining from the “Ray Shero Era” in Pittsburgh. It’s not a surprise who’s still on the team, it’s forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgnei Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett and defenders Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Rob Scuderi, and who could forget star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Mike Darnay over at Pensburgh whipped up this nifty chart to show the dramatic changes that have been made in just one season.
Now this was made prior to the signing of veteran center Matt Cullen, but it proves a very important point. The Penguins have bought into advanced analytics. Almost every single move that was made was under the guidance of stat “guru” Sam Ventura, who founded the extremely popular website war-on-ice.com.
On paper, this is the best Penguins team we have seen in years and there are few who doubt that. Despite the doubt from people who do not follow the team very closely, the Penguins have a great chance to dominate the Metropolitan division.
What Needs to Happen to the Penguins in 2015-16
So we’ll start by discussing probably the most obvious and that is the Penguins must avoid the trainers room more than in past seasons. If you did not know, Pittsburgh has seemingly been cursed by injuries dating back to the 2009 season. Just take a look.
It’s not even just the amount of injuries, it’s the quality of players that are lost to injuries. It has not been Craig Adams missing time with injuries, it’s been Crosby, Malkin and Letang. The Chicago Blackhawks have won the cup three times in this span, the Los Angeles Kings have won twice and the Boston Bruins have won once and it should not be a surprise that they have been the least impacted by injuries in that time span.
Playing To Potential
The Pittsburgh Penguins currently have about 66.52% of their salary cap dedicated to their forwards and they have been able to do this because they’re going very cheap on defense. As in three of their projected starting defenders, Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin, will be playing on either entry-level contracts or very inexpensive deals. But this is a double-edged sword because while it’s great to save money on defense to acquire a prolific sniper like Phil Kessel, you are relying on defenders with very little experience.
We’ve previously discussed how the fate of the Penguins 2015-16 season could be decided by the play of the blue line and specifically it’s the young guns who pose the biggest questions. If the Penguins young defenders can play up to their potential, the team could be quite dangerous, but if they falter, it could be a very long season.
Mike Johnston’s Development
Prior to the 2013-14 season the Penguins fired head coach Dan Bylsma and replaced him with a rookie head coach named Mike Johnston. In his first season he guided the Penguins into the playoffs, despite playing down a defender at the end of the season. However, despite what I believe as an impressive performance from a rookie head coach, his reputation is split among the Penguins’ fanbase.
The biggest criticism of Johnston came from an inability to beat teams in the Metropolitan division and the declining win percentage. However, the biggest reason why the Penguins failed against the Metropolitan was because of the simplicity of his system, which is being addressed this offseason. Pittsburgh won 66% of their games when a facing a team for the first time, the second time it dropped to 52% and the third time was down to 39%. Which this again can be attributed to the simplistic system that the Penguins used and the inability to have a strong breakout with their best defenders missing significant time.
Outlook of the Penguins 2015-16
These three things are certainly not easy to accomplish, but you can chalk up the Penguins system as being dramatically improved from last year. That only leaves the Penguins avoiding injuries and players living up to their potential. Pittsburgh knows they have an injury problem and have overhauled their sports medicine staff this offseason, which hopefully will help in the 2015-16. Then there is the young players living up to their potential and it’s a serious concern. However, if the Penguins defense does not play well, you can bet a trade or two will be made to address this. Additionally, if the Penguins defense struggles early in the season, keep playing the kids, the only way they will improve is by playing and there will be growing pains associated with that.
Mark my words, the Penguins will be a force to be reckoned with this season. Even despite the massive amount of injuries they have endured, the team has not missed the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. Just imagine what could happen this season with the best group of forwards they have had since Jordan Staal left and a talented defensive corps.
Final thoughts from initial reader comments:
The Penguins started the 2014-15 season with a record of 22-10 before injuries occurred. They looked to be the hands down favorite to win the Metropolitan and the 2015-16 Penguins might actually have the deepest group of forwards in the division. Yes, it is entirely possible they dominate the Metro and the views of Andrew Bensch in his “Predicting the 2016 Easton Conference Playoff Teams” are his and his alone, I personally disagree with many of his projections.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave your comments below or tweet me anytime @MPityk
Michael Pityk is an analyst who has written for numerous sites since beginning his professional career. He’s acted as a credentialed member of the media for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sports Journal, MSN, PensLabyrinth, Montreal Hockey Talk, ESPN Pittsburgh, The Hockey Writers, Todays SlapShot and The Bleacher Report. He formerly was the editor of Pens Labyrinth and an analyst for The Sports Journal. Michael presently acts as an NHL Analyst for The Hockey Writers