The Glass Eye: 2014-15 Penguins Preview

Today, as promised, I’m going to preview the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins…

What? Yes, they’ve already played two games. Yes, I attended one in person. How can I still call this a ‘preview’? Good question!

The simple truth is, with 25% roster turnover, a new GM AND a new coaching staff, I honestly had no clue what to expect or predict for this season. Add in the fact that Crosby missed most of the preseason and Malkin missed ALL of it, and I just did not feel that any attempt at previewing the team would have been relevant 10 days ago. I wanted an opportunity to see what the new roster looked like when it was intact, what the new coaching strategies meant for the team, and generally get a sense for what we could expect going forward (besides, two games out of 82 is certainly a very small sample!).

You see, there’s no question that this is a franchise at a crossroads. Now 5+ years from their Cup victory over the Red Wings, and with Crosby and Malkin now 27 and 28 years old and both well into their primes *** (and likely approaching the start of their decline phases), there’s simply no time to waste on a total rebuild. Every year is crucial – #87 and #71 can still carry a team for long stretches, but look around hockey (or ANY sport, for that matter) and you’ll see that by age 30-33, those dominant players are generally a lot less dominant than they were in their mid to late twenties.

(***Side note: this is Sid’s 10th year in the NHL already, and his 8th as team Captain. Is it just me or does it seem like those 10 years have REALLY flown by??***)

Pittsburgh’s problems last year were mostly depth issues – they got sporadic production from their third line and basically nothing from their fourth line, along with nothing in the way of forward prospects in the minors to help in case of injury. If a team shut either Crosby or Malkin down, chances were they could win the game. GM Ray Shero made a lot of ‘mortgage-the-future’  moves over the past few years in an attempt to win another Cup, but frankly his trading acumen seemed to wane the past few seasons and the Pens were getting worse instead of better – especially in the postseason, when space becomes tight and depth matters more than ever.

In addition, the coaching staff seemed to overrun the fine line between sticking with your system and being too stubborn. As opponents figured out the Pens’ tendencies and adjusted, too often there would be no reaction from the Pens’ bench – a chess game with one side making all the moves. Believe me, former coach Dan Bylsma has my respect and gratitude for all the great things he accomplished here – but raw talent can only take you so far.

So that’s the past – let’s look at who’s new, from the top down:

General Manager: Jim Rutherford was brought in, by his own admission he’s a stopgap solution – he was set to retire after a long stint as GM of the Hurricanes ***, but the allure of working with a top franchise – and training up some good assistants in Jason Botterill and Billy Guerin – proved too much to pass up. It’s easy to forget now, but Rutherford built the Hurricanes into Cup champions in 2006 (they also reached the Finals in 2002 and the Conference Finals in 2009). He was GM of the Hartford/Carolina franchise for 20 years, and turned them from a perennial laughingstock into a contender…and then back into a poor team over the past few seasons (no playoff appearances since ’09).

(***The last big trade between the Pens and Canes – Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter, Brian Doumolin, and the #8 overall pick in 2012 – served as Shero’s last great trade, but it was also a warning to me that Shero was not immune to poor decisions. Before making the trade, he offered Staal a 10-year, $60 million contract. Had Staal accepted that deal, the Pens would be in FAR worse shape for it today. Rutherford bailed out Pittsburgh big-time that day.)

I do not believe Rutherford will look to trade prospects for rentals – he was hired with a mandate to make the team younger and faster – and I like most of his early moves (see below). I think he will be best-served by mostly sitting this season out on the trade front and letting this roster develop cohesiveness, as well as giving some prospects an honest chance. I don’t think he’s a GREAT GM at this stage of his career, but he’s an acceptable placeholder until one of the younger guys steps up in 2016.

Head Coach: Mike Johnston is apparently well-known inside hockey, but truthfully I’d never heard of him before he was hired. However, he has an impressive resume: he has coached/managed the Canadian National team several times, both at the Olympic level and at the Junior level; he was an assistant coach in the NHL with the Canucks and Kings; and for the past six seasons he was coach/GM of the Portland Winterhawks, a junior team, compiling a 231-114-10 record there.

He has emphasized speed, puck possession, and moving up the ice ‘as a pack’ to provide support to the puck-carrier – and all three traits were on full display in last week’s dominating wins over the Ducks and Leafs. He’s sure to run into adversity in the not-too-distant future, but after an offseason of uncertainty the fast start has eased the pressure on both the players and the new coaches.

Forwards: The return from injury of Pascal Dupuis is an underrated part of the Pens’ situation. Dupuis is a speed player who has developed above-average puck skills since joining the Pens in 2008, and his loss was deeply felt during the postseason. Many wondered if the devastating knee injury he suffered last December would sap his speed – early returns (four points on opening night) say no.

Patric Hornqvist was acquired from Nashville with Nick Spaling (see below) for sniper James Neal. His shot is nowhere near as powerful as ‘the Real Neal’, but his game is much more diverse – he goes hard to the net, he’s got enough speed to play with Crosby, and he appears to be able to shake off opponents’ attempts to rattle him much more easily than the tempestuous Neal. It’s early, but he’s quickly developed a strong chemistry with Crosby (2G, 2A in four games).

Steve Downie is a ‘tough guy’ (768 penalty minutes in 338 games) with some real skill mixed in (59 goals, including 22 with Tampa in 2010 while current Pens’ assistant coach Rick Tocchet was his head coach). He won’t be counted on for 20 here, but if he can chip in 10 – and keep opponents from taking liberties on the stars, while keeping his own temper in check – he’ll be an asset.

Blake Comeau came over as a free agent from the Blue Jackets, where he notched five goals and 11 assists last season. He had 24 goals three years ago and he has one already for the Pens, but look for him to be primarily a checking winger on the 3rd/4th lines.

Nick Spaling was the ‘throw-in’ with Hornqvist in the Neal trade. Spaling had 13 goals last season and he’s only 26, so he could be capable of 15-20 goals…but on this team, as primarily a 4th-line center, he will be fortunate to get 10 goals in limited ice time. His presence makes the fourth line MUCH more dangerous than it has been in years, though – instead of playing a ‘defense only’ game, the fourth line now has the capability of going on the attack and hemming in the opponents’ top line – and even scoring occasionally.

Defense: Christian Ehrhoff was signed as a free-agent after having his contract bought out by Buffalo. He signed for one year and $4 million, making him perhaps the best value in free agency this offseason. He’s a well-rounded defenseman in the Paul Martin mold – not overly big at 200 pounds, he has good skating ability and an accurate shot. He has 69 career goals and as many as 14 in a season, but don’t look for him to score more than five or six here unless he gets some time on the power-play unit. He’s no longer a top defenseman, but as a #3/#4 he’s well above-average.

Goalie: Thomas Greiss is someone I’ve had my eye on for several years. He’s been the primary backup first in San Jose and then in Phoenix since 2009, and last year he produced a sterling 2.29 goals against average and a .920 save %. In my opinion he’s the best backup the Pens have had in the Fleury era, and I also believe he was brought in to a.) push Fleury hard, and b.) possibly replace him if ‘the Flower’ is allowed to leave as a free agent this summer. This was an excellent signing by Rutherford.

Overview: The forward group is as deep as it’s been in several years – the top six of Crosby-Kunitz-Hornqvist and Malkin-Sutter-Dupuis matches up with anyone in the conference, and adding Comeau, Downie, and Spaling finally gives the team some much needed grit AND scoring threats.

The defense still lacks size and grit – although Robert Bortuzzo provides both when healthy. The question mark here is Rob Scuderi – he was below-par last year and hasn’t looked much better thus far in 2014 (again its ONLY two games). If his struggles continue, big contract or not, he needs to be benched – defense is the deepest position by far for this organization, there are several top prospects waiting in the wings in Scranton for their chance.

I’m not worried about the goalie situation. Fleury wasn’t the problem last season, he typically is solid during the regular season anyway, and Greiss (along with Jeff Zatkoff in the minors) provides some of the best insurance in the NHL.

PREDICTION: Look, we Pens fans are spoiled at this point. Regular season records mean little; and less as the years go by we want more Cups and we want them NOW. I try to recognize the unparalleled run of regular-season success this team enjoyed under Bylsma  – he leaves as the winningest coach in team history, and has BY FAR the best winning percentage of any coach who stayed more than a couple seasons – but the truth is, like everyone else, I was turned off by their playoff collapses the last three years. I expected some change…and while the extent of the change was initially shocking, in the end I think it’s a healthy thing for the franchise. The team is selling hope above all, and Pens fans now have hope that things will unfold differently next April/May (dare we hope for June?).

The talent is so good, anything less than 95 points and a top-2 finish in the division would be a disappointment…but more than the record, I’m watching the process. The new regime has promised to utilize the season as a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Division titles – and the home ice reward they grant – have been shown to be utterly meaningless in the playoffs. If they lose a few more games while working to get the right roster combos and strategies honed in, I’m all for it.

I don’t see this team matching last season’s gaudy record, and I couldn’t care less. Call it 98-104 points, a fight for the meaningless division title, and first-round home ice advantage for the Pens.

Next week, I’ll have something a little different – a defense of MLB commissioner Bud Selig as part of a broader topic.

I welcome your feedback! Email me anytime at dsglass74@gmail.com.

 

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