The Pitttsburgh Penguins are coming off quite a strange season. It was one that showcased the talent on the team as they started out with a record of 22-10 and had a power play converting at around 50%. However, the success would not last as the Penguins were plagued with injuries and the team faltered at the end of the season.
The Penguins enter the 2015-16 season looking like a vastly different team from even a season ago. There is no question this is general manager Jim Rutherford’s team now. Pittsburgh will continue to rely on their superstar-heavy approach and their lineup will feature the usual suspects of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. But this season, Crosby will finally be joined by an elite wing and his name happens to be Phil Kessel.
Head coach Mike Johnston brought an up-tempo puck possession system to the team last year and it worked like a charm, until the league caught on. It’s a very simple system designed to let the superstar players utilize their skills to their potential. However, the simplicity of the system allowed for other teams to quickly shut down the once potent offense. During the 2014-15 season, the Penguins win percentage the first time they played a club was 66%, the second time it fell to 52% and by the third matchup the Pens only won 39% of games. Johnston is a very smart man, despite his soft spoken nature, look for him to add some complexity to his system in the upcoming season.
The fate of the Penguins 2015-16 season hangs on the blue line. For years, the defense was good enough to contend, but the forward depth around the superstars has not been good enough. Well, the Penguins now have the forwards to compete and are relying on three young defenders to take the next step. It’s time for Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin to prove that they can play at the NHL level because if they cannot, it will be a long season for Pittsburgh.
2014-15 Record: 43-27-12 (98 points)
GF: 19th (221)
GA: 10th (210)
PP: 10th (19.29%)
PK: 3rd (84.84%)
Perron – Crosby – Kessel
Plotnikov – Malkin – Hornqvist
Kunitz – Bonino – Bennett
Sheary/Wilson – Cullen – Dupuis
The Penguins traded for Phil Kessel a few months ago and it might have been the biggest transaction that happened this offseason. He’s coming off of a “down year” in which he scored only 25 goals, 36 assists for a total of 61 points. If you have a player who is disappointed with 25 goals, you probably have a really good player. His career high in goals is 37, and that occurred twice, playing alongside Tyler Bozak. Now in his first year in Pittsburgh, Kessel will be looking to rebound playing alongside the best player in the NHL. Some have projected that Kessel could score as high as 50 goals now that he’s away from the persistent and ruthless Toronto media. In 2015-16 Kessel needs to prove doubters wrong, improve his two-way play and show why he’s one of the top goal scorers in the NHL.
The Penguins made a move that many were anticipating for the last six months, they traded Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks. The return was center Nick Bonino, defensive prospect Adam Clendening and a second-round pick. Considering that the Penguins could not afford to give Sutter a large contract extension, the move made a lot of sense. However, Bonino has been the overlooked part of this trade, his point totals are very similar to Sutter’s and his possession metrics are far superior. He’s coming off of a season where he played 75 games, scored 15 goals, assisted on 24 more for a total of 39 points. He’s not a perfect third-line center as some have criticized his lack of physicality and slow foot speed, but he is what the Penguins need. Bonino should be a viable third line scoring threat and when Eric Fehr returns from his offseason surgery, the Penguins could move Bonino to wing.
Very few players have tormented the Penguins more than Eric Fehr has over the past few seasons. He’s big, he’s physical and he can score. Fehr is coming off of a season in which he played in 75 games, scored 19 goals and assisted on 14 more for a total of 33 points. In 2015-16 he’ll be relied upon as the Penguins top penalty killing forward and he may take over as the third line center. Pittsburgh signed him to a three-year/$6 million contract and it looks to be quite a bargain, if he can stay healthy.
There is no way to talk about the Penguins and leave out their captain, and the NHL’s best overall player, Sidney Crosby. He’s an offensive juggernaut and has been the most consistent player in the NHL over the last three seasons. He’s coming off a season in which he did not win any of the NHL’s main awards, but that was due to missing five games near the end of the season. When evaluating players based upon points-per-game, Crosby has led the league for the last three years straight. He has had injury problems throughout his career, but there is no one who can impact a game the way Crosby can. He could be even more effective during the upcoming season because for the first time since Marian Hossa’s brief stop in Pittsburgh, Crosby has a wing who’s talent level is similar to his. Barring injury, expect him to improve upon his 84 points in 77 games, he might even crack 100 points again.
Maatta – Letang
Pouliot – Lovejoy
Cole – Dumoulin
Gonchar – Scuderi
The 21-year old Finnish defender is considered one of the leagues’ up and coming stars. Maatta worked his way onto the team prior to the 2013-14 season and in, nearly, a full season impressed many people around the NHL. However, his 2014-15 campaign was tragic as his surgically repaired shoulder did not hold up, he battled thyroid cancer and he only managed to play 20 games. But in the limited sample, the Penguins saw a lot of potential in Maatta and they’re counting on him to take the next step.
Ben Lovejoy is one of the most polarizing players on the Penguins roster. He was acquired in a horrific trade that sent the young, talented, physical, smooth skating and hard hitting Simon Despres to the Anaheim Ducks. This isn’t Lovejoy’s first stint in Pittsburgh, but it’s been a rocky start. He’s entering a contract year and coming off a season that saw him playing on the top pairing, due to injuries, and he was exposed for what he is. Ben Lovejoy is not a top pairing defender, and it’s hard to see how Penguins management believes he’s a second pairing defender. But Johnston wants to see if the young defender Pouliot and Lovejoy can rekindle the chemistry they had last season.
It’s unfair to discuss the Despres trade, without talking about the “Ian Cole heist.” Cole is a former first-round pick who was buried on the St. Louis Blues blue line, but with a change of scenery he should play to his potential during the upcoming season. During 20 games with the Penguins, Cole averaged 18:29 minutes of ice time which was the highest of his career, produced eight points and surprised everyone. The Penguins liked what they saw from Cole and rewarded him with a three-year/$6 million extension and it was brilliant move. They have a potential top-four defender locked up at a cost controlled rate for the next three seasons.
What more can be said about Kris Letang? He’s one of the best defensemen in the NHL, but he’s also had a lot of injury problems throughout his career. In the last calendar year, Letang has overcame numerous concussions, a stroke and countless lower-body injuries. Letang is an elite possession driver and one of the best at producing points from the blue line. If he stays healthy during the 2015-16 season, it’s not hard to imagine that Letang is in the conversation to win the Norris Trophy.
The Penguins are going young and cheap on while defense and they’re counting on Derrick Pouliot to progress into a top-four defender. He may not be the most logical choice to breakout in the 2015-16 season and there may be a player who deserves this nomination more at the end of the year, but Pouliot has to breakout in the upcoming season if the Penguins want to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Player With The Most To Prove
Crosby and Kunitz have been a staple on the Penguins top line for a large portion of the last five years. However, last season was Kunitz’s worst full season in Pittsburgh. He appeared in 74 games, scored 17 goals and assisted on 23 for more a total of 40 points. There was a noticeable difference in Kunitz’s play as the season wore on, his ability to finish vanished. His play did not wear down as the season dragged on, but his production dipped. In his first 11 games of the season, he scored eight goals and in his final 68 he netted just ten. That has been attributed to his early season foot injury and the mysterious “iron deficiency.” But Kunitz is now 35-years old and has two years left on his contract, he needs to rebound in the 2015-16 season and justify his presumed spot next to Crosby.
It’s going to be another season of sky high expectations for the Penguins, and this time it’s justifiable. They’re entering the season with their deepest group of forwards in the last five years, have a great goaltender and definitely the have talent on the blue line. The biggest question mark will be seeing how the young blue liners adapt to playing a full season in the NHL.
The Penguins have had some issues with performing in the playoffs, especially last season, but much of that can be attributed to injuries. Expect Pittsburgh to be a regular season juggernaut, especially with the addition of Kessel.
This team will be judged on how well they fare in the playoffs. There’s a lot of concerns on the blue line and the lack of physicality, but the Penguins are more talented than a lot of their division rivals. The Metropolitan Division has proved to be a problem for the Penguins under Mike Johnston, but after a full offseason they should be more competitive.
In the end, as long as the Penguins make the playoffs, they have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and that’s how this team will truly be judged.
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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