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2015-16 Penguins Preview – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

2015-16 Penguins Preview

As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to open the 49th season of their rich and storied history on Thursday night in Dallas, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.

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Just ask team captain Sidney Crosby. “You get excited when you see some of the players we’ve added,” Sid said.

If the Penguins feel like a brand-new team, well, it’s because they are. Including sniper Phil Kessel (25 goals with Toronto), the opening-night roster will feature as many as seven new skaters. Gone are black-and-gold mainstays Craig Adams, Paul Martin and Brandon Sutter, along with most of the guys GM Jim Rutherford imported last year.

The fresh faces have fans buzzing about the team’s chances. Even in the wake of a shaky 3-5 exhibition slate.

So what can we truly expect? Is the perceived improvement real, or a well-conceived case of smoke and mirrors? Will the Pens be Cup contenders or pretenders?

FORWARDS

Rutherford’s assembled the deepest, most skilled group of forwards since the Cup champs of ’09. In particular, the Crosby-Kessel combo promises to super-charge an attack that flat-lined down the stretch last season. Left wing Chris Kunitz, who mirrored the club’s offensive woes (18th in the NHL in goals) after suffering a broken foot in December, will get a shot at redemption skating alongside the dynamic duo.

The trickle-down should have a positive impact on Evgeni Malkin. “Geno” will start the season with crease-crashing Patric Hornqvist (25 goals) on his wing. They’ll be joined—for now—by rookie Sergei Plotnikov. The big-bodied Russian seems a step slow, but impressed with his boldness in traffic.

Hustling Nick Bonino (15 goals with Vancouver) centers the revamped third line. The shot-blocking forward is flanked on the right side by Beau Bennett, who enters a make-or-break campaign on a mini-roll thanks in part to improved conditioning. Pricey David Perron, projected as the odd-man out until popular Pascal Dupuis went down a lower-body injury, likely will occupy the port side.

Greybeard Matt Cullen anchors the fourth line—at least until free-agent Eric Fehr returns from off-season elbow surgery. If he’s unable to keep pace, look for prospect Oskar Sundqvist to move up from Wilkes-Barre.

Super-pest Bobby Farnham provides energy and much-needed mustard. Second-round pick Daniel Sprong, dazzling during the preseason thanks to his NHL-ready skills, earned an extended look.

DEFENSE

The Achilles heel. Tailored for coach Mike Johnston’s puck-possession game, the defense is neither rugged nor deep. It doesn’t help that top prospect Derrick Pouliot bombed during the preseason (minus-7), prompting a surprise demotion to Wilkes-Barre. Or that black-and-gold legend Sergei Gonchar flopped on a PTO, thinning the ranks even more.

Not that the Pens lack blue-line talent. Concussion worries aside, mega-skilled Kris Letang (54 points in ’14-15) is entering his prime. Finnish whiz Olli Maatta oozes all-star potential. Number-three defenseman Ian Cole plays a solid all-around game. Although undersized, mobile newcomer Adam Clendening could thrive in Johnston’s up-tempo system.

The rest of the bunch is iffy. Rangy Brian Dumoulin performed ably in the playoffs last spring following a solid season (plus-25) with the Baby Pens. Is he ready for full-time duty? Will veterans Ben Lovejoy and Rob Scuderi quiet their growing legion of detractors? Can journeyman Tim Erixon, a washout with four NHL teams, provide necessary depth?

How concerned is the Pens’ brass? Plenty. Enough, according to several sources, to approach Winnipeg about Dustin Byfuglien, the bruising, wide-body defender whose booming shot is matched by his super-sized cap hit ($5.2M).

GOALTENDING

Fresh off his finest season (a league-best 10 shutouts), team MVP Marc-Andre Fleury once again will shoulder the load between the pipes. Jeff Zatkoff, who did a creditable job as No. 2 man in 2013-14, returns as backup following a one-year absence. Phenom Matt Murray, the AHL’s top goalie last year (1.58 GAA), is waiting in the wings should Zatkoff falter.

Given the team’s obvious offensive bent and lack of backline muscle, Flower and Co. may have their work cut out for them. Still, goaltending should be a strength.

COACHING

Rookie coach Mike Johnston looked like a genius through the early going last season, when the club was firing on all cylinders. Then a rash of injuries, a punchless power play, and late-season salary cap woes reduced the Pens to a sputtering wreck.

Through the adversity, Johnston continued to teach, reinforcing the positives while pointing out areas that needed improvement. Despite an early playoff exit he quickly received absolution from David Morehouse.

“I don’t know if any team in the league would win without three of its top four defensemen,” the Pens CEO said.

That was then. This is now. With the bar set even higher—perhaps unreasonably so—Johnston and assistants Rick Tocchet and Gary Agnew figure to be on a much shorter leash should things go awry.

Venerable Jacques Martin rejoins the staff as an “eye in the sky.” He’ll provide analysis from the press box.

OUTLOOK

Based on its bipolar exhibition play—not to mention the wholesale changes—it’s tough to get a read on this team. Will the Pens resemble the dynamo that throttled Carolina’s B-team? Or do they favor the hapless squad that got torched (twice) by Detroit?

Maybe neither. Maybe both.

Will the Penguins be able to play with and protect a lead? How will they stack up against physical foes like Columbus and Washington?

The bottom line: if the superstars stay healthy and the defensive corps jells, a Metro Division title isn’t out of the question. However, if the injury bug bites…especially core defenders Letang and Maatta…look out below.

Either way, the Pens will be infinitely more fun and entertaining. Enjoy the ride!

*Be sure to check out Rick Buker’s books,
 
available at TriumphBooks.com, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com

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4 Comments

  1. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    October 7, 2015 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rick,
    Very detailed article. Well done. Unlike Phil,my issue IS the defense corps. Letang has health issues .Period.He has never been able to stay healthy for a whole season.What is going to change that any informed fan can take hope with. Letang is small and plays a physical style of hockey that has cost him 3 or 4 concussions. Plus he is 28,not 23 anymore. His best days are behind him. Matta has had one good year, and as typical Pens fans, we immediately crown him as the second coming of Bobby Orr. Matta is good.Yes. But can he, at this point in his brief career anchor a defense corps for a Cup contender. He is no Seabrook, Weber,Dowdy, Suban or even Eckblad. With Letang and his health history, somebody will have to be the missing anchor during this season. Matta may develop into a good number 2 d-man someday ,but we need a 6 ft 4, 230 pound offensive and defensive number one leader. NOW !
    We do not have one !
    Depres may have developed into one if given proper coaching and time.
    Lovejoy, Dumoulin, Clendening and Scuds are not going to get you to far.
    They are role players at best.
    In Wilkes Barrie we have nothing to replace them with. Pouliot is small and has trouble handling the bigger physical forwards and has had his own health issues in his brief career.This kid should be packaged up with Scuds
    and a pile of money for a large, veteran (25 ish) d man who can be a number one anchor. Then trade Letang and a pile of money and get another number one d man. If you need to clear salary cap to do the deal, throw in Pascal Dupris.That would free up 11million. Then maybe with 2 really good, large and physical d men we would become the cup contender we both want.

    Nice to have u back ! Keep up the good work…

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 8, 2015 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Hey Jim,

      Always nice to hear from you. Once again, I agree with most everything you say.

      I’m worried about the Pens’ defense, too. And Letang’s health. You’re right … for a smallish and (highly) skilled player, he’s never shied away from the physical aspect of the game. It’s part of what makes him such a special player. Unfortunately, given his history, is “Tanger” one nasty hit away from a career-threatening concussion? I don’t even want to think about it.

      While Maatta will never be the next Bobby Orr, I do think he has a very high ceiling. If he can stay healthy.

      Like you, I wish we had one more (large) piece to the defensive puzzle. If only JR hadn’t made the Despres-Lovejoy deal, I think we’d at least be closer to having a decent mix. No use crying over spilled milk.

      That’s why the Pens’ rumored interest in Dustin Byfuglien intrigued me. Apparently, he’s not planning to re-sign with Winnipeg and the Jets are considering moving him … for the right return.

  2. October 7, 2015 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Hey Rick, awesome synopsis! The defense is very interesting. There is not one defenseman I would not give for Byfuglien, yes, including Letang.

    Which brings me to the most worrisome part of the Penguins. The coaching.

    I don’t care what they say about the Penguins defense being short handed last year, the team at no point during the year had a viable system to break players out of the defensive zone. After the first month or so of the season, the other teams exploited this to no end.

    On top of that, Scuderi was played along with Crosby’s line as much as possible all season. One of Crosby’s favorite plays is to pull up and hit the defenseman. Every time Crosby did that, Scuderi dumped the puck behind the net. Why Coach Johnston can’t see this is beyond me.

    Johnston also said that he was one that would make changes on the fly, but yet he almost never adjusted to anything. A prime example is Pouliot who definitely got the shaft during pre-season being pared with Gonchar just about the entire time. It was the perfect time to try out different pairings.

    Luckily, Rutherford has put together an amazing team this season, probably better than any team of Shero’s, it would take some really bad coaching to mess it up. It should be a lot of fun to watch!

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Hey Phil,

      Thanks for the compliment … 🙂 It’s always great to hear from you … and to read your thoughts … 🙂

      Regarding Johnston, I honestly thought I’d hear more griping about him as the team stumbled last spring. I don’t have any special connections, so I don’t know the inside scoop. The only comments I read were from Crosby (in the Trib), who said Johnston was doing a good job.

      My own (very uninformed) take? I think Johnston knows the nuances of the game…and his system…inside and out. He seems to do a good job of identifying what needs to be fixed, and I’m sure he communicates/teaches well.

      Like you, I’m not sure how well he adjusts in-game. At times he appeared to be caught off guard on the bench…almost like he was stunned at how certain scenarios were playing out. Of course, our Penguies are your proverbial on-ice “box of chocolates.” You never know what you’re gonna’ get.

      I do question whether Johnston’s able to inspire and motivate the troops. Contrasted to a Badger Bob Johnson or even a Dan Bylsma, he seems kind of clinical.

      Again, these are strictly my observations. I could be all wet…

      Regarding Byfuglien … I’d LOVE to have him. I think he’d cure a lot of what ails the Pens in one monster package. Of course, he comes with a monster price tag, too.

      Letang for Byfuglien straight up? I think the trade would make a lot of sense for both teams. “Big Buff” would provide the black and gold with a badly needed physical presence, and he’s got lots of skill for a big guy. Because the Jets are a tough, physical team, in theory they’d be better able to insulate Letang from the kind of abuse he routinely absorbs with the Pens, perhaps prolonging his career.

      If the deal could be expanded to include Andrew Ladd for David Perron, so much the better.

      I just don’t know how other teams view “Tanger,” and how his concussion history affects his trade value.


            

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