On paper, the Pittsburgh Penguins are heading into the 2015-16 as a far superior team to the one that was nearly swept by the New York Rangers. Much of the improvement can be attributed to the usage of advanced analytics. There’s a common misconception that because “fancy stats” are still relatively new, they do not provide value, but many teams have shown that is not the case.
While the team looks to be a much better puck possession team, which fits perfectly with head coach Mike Johnston’s system, there’s a lack of toughness across the lineup. As it currently stands their biggest “enforcers” will be Eric Fehr and Sergei Plotnikov. However, both bring more to the ice than just being a penalty killing specialist or a pure energy player like Bobby Farnham.
There will be no one like Zach Sill or Craig Adams in the Penguins opening lineup. The closest player to that will be Tom Sestito, who is on a professional tryout contract and is no lock to make the team, and the mentioned Farnham. But both will be AHL players who get called up for certain games, like against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Is the Penguins Lack of Toughness a Problem?
There should not be any debate that the Penguins lack toughness, but what is up for debate is this void going to be a problem?
Some want to argue that having players like Adams, Sill and Steve Downie around protect the star players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But i’ll pose a simple question; how well has that worked in the last five seasons?
Pittsburgh’s lineup over the last five seasons has been littered with high-end skill players like Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang and then no viable scoring depth behind them. This was done in an attempt to bring “grit” and “character” to the team. The Penguins employed players like Douglas Murray, Tanner Glass and even Brooks Orpik.
How was has this plan worked out?
Regardless of what you think of the current Penguins’ lineup, everyone can agree that Pittsburgh’s formula has not been working. So a change of direction has been taken. The NHL game is moving towards faster skaters who have excellent hands. The “enforcers” and “goons” are slowly being phased out of the league simply because they don’t bring enough to the ice.
The biggest issue with the Penguins new direction that I have was the trade that sent Simon Despres away. This deal has been discussed, dissected and broken-down by every media outlet in existence and no one has found a good answer why the Penguins made this deal. The thinking was that Pittsburgh could not trust Despres now and knew they were going to lose the deal, but wanted to gear up for a playoff run. Well that did not happen and the Penguins are stuck with Ben Lovejoy, once again.
One is a 6’4″ defender who can skate very well, produce offensively and lay out some huge hits, while the other is a limited bottom-pairing defender who is exposed when over deployed. To make matters worse, many have pegged Despres as a top-four defender with the Anaheim Ducks this season.
The Penguins would be a vastly superior team if Despres was still with the club. Not only because he would appease the fans who feel it’s necessary to have “grit” and “toughness” but because he’s an analytically sound defender that the Penguins will regret giving up on.
So while it’s a nice thought to contemplate what the Penguins would look like with Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres still on the team, that is no longer reality.
As it currently stands, I do think the Penguins lack of toughness is a problem. However, there is no good way to go about addressing this issue without giving a spot in the lineup to a player who doesn’t deserve it. General manager Jim Rutherford set out this offseason to create four lines that can score and he has done just that. He’s trying to duplicate the construction of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, who ooze skill on every line.
Will it work? The Penguins look to have a great chance to make it work. However, should the team falter and management equates the failure to the lack of toughness, there will be a trades coming. If there’s one thing you can count on almost every season, it is the Penguins making multiple trades throughout the year and the 2015-16 season should not be any different.
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