Pens Season Preview: Guest Roundtable Featuring @JoshYohe_Trib , @IanAltenbaugh, @Brian_Metzer, and @GunnerStaal - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Pens Season Preview: Guest Roundtable Featuring @JoshYohe_Trib , @IanAltenbaugh, @Brian_Metzer, and @GunnerStaal





We are now less than one month away from the start of the 2013-2014  NHL season. Of course, as you all know, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a really busy off-season, after a disappointing finish in the 2013-2014 playoffs. The Pens now have a new general manager, a new head coach, and a lot of changes throughout the lineup. As always, the Pens are still considered one of the top 4 or 5 favorites to win the Stanley Cup heading into the season. However, after five straight seasons of ending the season in disappointing fashion, and with a ton of new faces in the organization, there is a lot of uncertainty with this team. 

So we at Pens Initiative decided to bring in some of our favorite friends that cover the Penguins to help preview the season.

Let's meet the panel:


Brian Metzer: Penguins Live Host/NHL Net Radio, Beaver County Times, NHL .com contributing. @Brian_Metzer



Josh Yohe: Penguins beat writer for the Tribune-Review. Follow him on Twitter
@JoshYohe_Trib

Ian Altenbaugh: Eastern conference editor & Pittsburgh Penguins writer at http://www.hockeysfuture.com  Follow him on Twitter @IanAltenbaugh 

Ryan Wilson 
Head Penguins writer for Hockeybuzz. NHL writer for @Hockey_Hurts

Chad "Mad Chad" Nolan : Featured writer for Pens Initiative. Follow me on Twitter @MadChad412 

First off, I wanted to say thanks for participating in this round-table discussion. We wanted to get the general feel from the local media/blogs that are covering the Pittsburgh Penguins as we gear up to start another season. 






Q: I want to start to talk about the new front-office and coaching staff. Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero are gone. Insert Jim Rutherford and new rookie head coach Mike Johnston. In summary, how do you feel fans should look back on the Shero-Bylsma era? And how much of a "Culture change" was actually needed for this locker-room?

Ryan: I believe that the Shero-Bylsma era will be looked at as underachieving, because it was. Coach Bylsma had his flaws and one of his bigger flaws was buying high on intangibles and falling in love with unskilled veteran players while ignoring younger more talented options.

Ray Shero had as many bad moves (Doug Murray, Brendan Morrow, Jarome Iginla, Rob Scuderi, Glass Adams etc...), as he did good ones (Neal/Niskanen, Hossa, Guerin) and they eventually just ended up cancelling each other out. Shero did a poor job of utilizing quality players on ELC's and as a result the Penguins never could fill out their depth properly.
I'm not in the Penguins dressing room to know if they needed a culture change, but they certainly needed to change how they evaluate talent.


Ian: They needed a culture change in the sense that there needed to be a new voice in the locker room. It's like dating, sometimes teams and coaches are just outright the not fit and the results are awful (Vancouver and John Tortorella) and other times the two sides just grow apart (Pittsburgh, Nashville). Sure, there were signs that things were not going right earlier, but the two sides thought they could work through it, and even went to some lengths to try to make it work. It doesn't mean either side was right or wrong, they were just no longer compatible. This is the point where I'll stop with this analogy.


Metzer: Honestly, I will look back fondly on the tenure of both men. I think they took a franchise that had run a bit off of the rails and righted it for a number of seasons. I realize that they didn’t get the success that they had hoped to achieve, specifically over the past five seasons, but their fingerprints will be left on the organization forever. Only one other general manager and two other coaches have won the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh and that is pretty special. For all the criticisms levied at Shero, he took a hockey ops department that was essentially still using legal pads and modernized it. It is also worth noting that Bylsma was never as bad as many made him out to be. 

While there were flaws, he did an awful lot right. He’ll learn from his time here, grow and be a better coach for it. The bottom line here and it can be said for many star studded teams around the league is that change sometimes needs to happen for the sake of change. The system has got to be shaken up a bit and that is what we saw. As for the culture change, the biggest issue was that they didn’t have enough cap available to retain the depth that they had in years past. They subtracted a lot of grit and leadership in the form of guys that they just could no longer afford. They have done a better job of filling out their roster with actual NHL players who bring a good mix of both this season and they’ll be better for it.

Yohe: Fans should have mixed feelings about the Shero/Bylsma era. Penguins fans will always have June 12, 2009, when the Cup was claimed in Detroit. It's hard to blast a regime that helped deliver that night.

However, the era rightfully should be remembered as a disappointment, particularly as it relates to Bylsma. The fact is, Shero gave him the NHL's best roster for the 2012 and 2013 postseasons. Bylsma's teams went 10-11 in those two springs, winning only two series despite having a healthy team. It was pretty unacceptable, especially given the weak nature of the Eastern Conference.

Culture change? I don't really think there was anything wrong with the Penguins locker room. Their stars didn't always play like stars in the playoffs and it was a collectively soft lineup. That isn't a recipe for playoff success.



Chad: I thought Ray Shero was a master at getting a lot of talent in return in his trades. However, his drafting was really bad and has put this franchise in a tough spot when it comes to depth at forward. Bylsma was a great guy but I never thought he was a great coach. I think that both guys had their shelf lives expire here in Pittsburgh. Hockey has a lot of transition at those positions, and with the need to win now during the Crosby/Malkin era, it was time to move on. You hear a lot of weird things about the culture being soft and even being compared to a country club, I wouldn't know because I am never in there. If anything was wrong with the culture, it was that the Penguins thought they could win with skill alone in a league where you need toughness to go with it. 



Q. How would you rate Rutherford's first off-season as Pens' general manager?

Ian: I think Dallas and St Louis improved their teams the most in the offseason, and I say that in terms of how they addressed their needs and the price they paid to do so. Neither overpaid. Right behind them, I would rank the Penguins. Rutherford replaced Niskanen and Orpik with a player who is better than either in Christian Erhoff. Here is a player who consistently averages over 23 minutes a game, plays in all situations, and posted respectable possession totals on a terrible team. He's durable, mobile, and exactly the type of defenseman the Penguins need as a 'bridge' player with their young defense. The defense will be just as good if not better, the offense has to be better in the bottom six, and I think Hornqvist could put up some solid numbers for the Pens, 30+ goals and 60+ points.




Metzer: Considering how he was thrust into the fray just ahead of the NHL Draft in Philadelphia, he has done a fine job. There are still some holes in the lineup, but he fleshed out a bottom six that was seriously lacking in NHL experience. He fixed the James Neal situation, which was one that was festering for a number of reasons and he managed to sign just about every free agent to a team friendly deal. I think the moves were well thought out and he showed an ability to change course quickly when the variables around him changed, such as Christian Ehrhoff becoming available after he and his staff already formulated a plan. While the visual wasn't great upon his initial hiring, I have been pretty impressed with how he has handled his business this summer.

Ryan: I think the Penguins should be a better team in 2014-15 than they were in 2013-14. So if I am following that logic Rutherford has done alright. The Ehrhoff signing is great and the bottom six should be somewhat better than last year. Signing Greiss is a better backup option than Zatkoff. I have my reservations about the Neal trade (see below). Rutherford deserves full marks for hiring a coach with modern philosophies.


Yohe: I really liked Rutherford's summer. First and foremost, he handed out a number of one-year deals, a philosophy that won't cripple the Penguins financially in the future. This was smart on his part.

Did the Penguins need Ehrhoff? Probably not. But was signing him at one-year, $4 million an incredible bargain? Absolutely.

The Penguins got better in net and on the blue line this summer. Their bottom-six also improved. Therefore, Rutherford did his job.

Do Crosby and Malkin require better linemates? Absolutely. I had a conversation with Rutherford two weeks ago, and he made it extremely clear that he's going to be aggressive at the trade deadline. Keep that in mind.

Chad: I loved Rutherford's off-season. I love the one-year signings of Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, and Christian Ehrhoff. All upgrades over some of the guys that left and they're not locked in to really long contracts. Rutherford has upgraded the talent, toughness, and has the Pens in a good position with the cap going forward. If he finds a way to get rid of Rob Scuderi we might need to start building him a statue. (Only slightly kidding) 



Q. Bringing in Rick Tocchet as assistant coach was a popular addition by many. How do you feel about bringing a coach like him in, and do you think this locker room will respond in a positive way to his style?



Yohe: The Tocchet situation was a little bizarre. It's not often that a new head coach is essentially informed that another person is already on his staff. That said, I fully expect Tocchet to enjoy a successful stint in Pittsburgh. The stuff about him being a "bad cop" coach is blown out of proportion. Truthfully, everyone really likes Tocchet. He's a qualified coach who has played with the likes of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, which means he has a great feel for star players, what they're capable of and how they should be treated. Plus, he has a wonderful history with Steve Downie, which could pay off. He always made sense as an assistant coach, and I think he will thrive.

Metzer: Some may feel that the team is taking on a little too much of a “Friends of Mario” feel, but it cannot hurt having a guy like Rick Tocchet around. He is well liked, well respected and isn’t shy about calling people for whatever reason necessary. He was the type of player that could score a huge goal for you or drop the gloves to protect a teammate and I think he’ll ingrain that philosophy in this group. On a personal note, Tocchet was one of my favorite NHLers over the course of his career, so it will be exciting to watch him work with this team and a little bit of a “bad cop” feel to the coaching staff.


Ian: Rick Tocchet is an intimidating dude, but he's a really nice guy too. He was one of the toughest guys in the last 25 years to play the game and did so with a great deal of skill. I'm not sure that he is the personality that some people think he is though. He is an ex player and once a player, always a player, and the team should accept him pretty readily.

Wilson: I'm pretty indifferent about it.  I think the Penguins issues stemmed more from icing terrible hockey players in their bottom six forward group than it did from any character/grit/heart issues. I certainly think it was time for the Penguins to get new voices/perspectives leading the team, but I think the whole Rick Tocchet being a Dog Whisperer for dirty players who can sometimes stay focused is vastly overrated.

Chad: I'm a huge mark for Tocchet. He was an awesome player and I think he's presence can be good for the locker room. I also like the fact that he is in control of the power-play. The only thing that is weird to me is that you have a media darling like Tocchet as an assistant coach with a unknown rookie head coach in Mike Johnston. The Penguns might be the only team in the league that will have an assistant coach appear in newspaper stories more than the head coach. No idea if that will actually affect the way this team performs though. 






Marc-Andre Fleury is in the last year of his contract and the Penguins have said they will wait until after the season to make a decision about his future with the franchise. What are your thoughts on this approach by the Penguin, how do you feel Fleury will respond to this? Do you see Fleury in a Penguins uniform after this season?


Metzer: I do think that Fleury will be retained. He’s earned that with his play over the past year. You can make a strong case that new goaltending coach Mike Bales made a world of difference for this young man. Stir in a bit of work for a sports psychologist and you had a Fleury who was once again showing some swagger on the ice. The kid played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder last season and one gaffe against Columbus aside, he was one of their best players in the post season.


If there is risk involved, it probably lies more with the Penguins. If Fleury posts another season on par with his last, he will be able to command top dollar on the free agent market and will have proven that his previous woes are behind him, thus forcing the team to potentially pay more than they might have been able to today. However, even if he would falter a bit he will still have a Stanley Cup on his resume, a second Finals appearance and very likely 300 NHL wins before this season is in the books (he’s at 288 right now). Those are all things that teams who are struggling for goaltending will be enamored with in approaching him with offers next summer.



Yohe: This is not a bad situation for Fleury. He simply must have one more good season and, next summer, he becomes an extraordinarily wealthy man, whether it's in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. I'm a believer in Fleury. Always have been. Were I the Penguins, I'd start talking contract with him right now. I think he showed last season that, with the tutelage of Mike Bales, he is again among the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders. Is he perfect? No. Can he be maddening? Yes. Should the Penguins be interested in locking him up for five more years? Absolutely. Do I think it's a lock that he's the Penguins' goalie next year at this time? No, I don't. I think he'll probably sign an extension, but I don't think it's a given. 



Ian: Fleury posted his best save percentage of his career and a 1.97 in 20 postseason games the last time he was up in a contract, in 2008. He has good goaltending coaching now, probably for the first time in his professional career. I question how much actual technique he was coached on in prior seasons. His game was much calmer this past year. He's always going to swim on the ice a little, and when he wades out into the deep end he sometimes drowns, but you take the good with the bad, Patrick Roy would overplay the puck too. If Fleury posts a season comparable to 2008 or 2009 then the Penguins will re-sign him. I don't know what choice they really have. The free agent goaltending market for 2015 is wretched and Murray and Jarry remain a few years away still. The other goalie UFAs in 2015 currently are Viktor Fasth, Antti Niemi, Karri Romo, Michel Neuvirth, Jonas Gustavsson, and the list goes on like that for a little while.


Ryan: This situation is unfortunate because it should have been fixed a few years ago. Marc Andre Fleury had a truly spectacular 2007-08 regular season/ playoffs and he has been riding that ever since. Contrary to belief he wasn't that great in 2009 when the Penguins won it all, he was below league average during that playoff run (and every year since until this past postseason where he was at league average). I think the biggest misconception when assessing a guy like Fleury is that some people think that a goalie who is playing below average can't have isolated individual moments of excellence, that isn't true IE: Lidstrom save. That doesn't change the overall body of work. Objectively, Fleury has hurt more than he has helped the Penguins. Numbers don't lie (and don't give me goalie wins as a measure of individual performance). My biggest fear is that Fleury plays to the league average this year and because of the low standard people are accustomed to they will think that Fleury "is back". If the Penguins extend him all this talk about embracing analytics is window dressing. And remember folks, criticizing his play isn't the same as criticizing him as a person!


Chad: I am a huge fan of Marc-Andre Fleury. I think he is a great guy and a good goalie. That being said, his cap-hit is way too high. Fleury at over $4 million per year is too much. You can find goalies around the NHL that can give you similar statistics for much cheaper. If the Pens do indeed plan on signing Fleury to an extension, I seriously think they should make sure his cap-hit either goes down, or stays around the same even if the cap continues to go up. All that said, I think Fleury will have a career-year as most athletes tend to do during contract years. 


Q. The Pens lost both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to free-agency this summer. With both Paul Martin and Christian Erhroff being unrestricted free-agents after this season, the Pens have a potential to lose four veteran defensemen to free agency in two summers. Do you think the Pens need to move Paul Martin at some point this year? If so, would any (realistic) potential return coupled with young organizational depth along the blue line be enough to offset the immediate void created on the back end or would this be more of a long-term move? 


Yohe: The Paul Martin situation is fascinating. He was not interested in talking extension with the Penguins during the summer, which strongly makes one wonder if Martin wants to be in Pittsburgh beyond next season. I'm not saying he doesn't want to be, but really, he'd be crazy to not test the free agent waters next summer. Brooks Orpik received a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer. Paul Martin is one year younger than Brooks. And so, I ask you, hockey fans, what the hell would Paul Martin get on the open market? You see my point. I think it's more likely that Ehrhoff decides he likes it here and signs a long term deal before free agency next summer. 


It's a tough call regarding Martin. He was their best defensemen last season, just a wonderful player. Great guy, too. But if you don't think he's coming back, trading him during the season seems wise. Much of this likely depends on Simon Despres. If he proves him as every day NHL top four defenseman this season, I could see Martin getting traded.


Ryan: I don't think the probability of losing all four is likely. Elliotte Friedman on multiple occasions has referenced the Penguins and Ehrhoff coming to a deal in early January, the earliest the two sides can make things official. I think that would be a great move. Paul Martin is tricky because he is a tremendous player, but he will want a longer deal than I think the Penguins can comfortably give him. Trading him would sting, but I do think you have to explore that possibility, you can't have back to back years where you lose both Martin and Niskanen for nothing. I don't know how true the turmoil is in San Jose but I would have a conversation with the Sharks about Patrick Marleau and see if Paul Martin would be open to signing an extension with them. As for the younger defensemen, the Penguins have a few options, you'd like to hope some of them will be contributors, otherwise Shero's tenure will look even worse.


Metzer: That is going to be the million dollar question entering the season. While Paul Martin is a very valuable commodity for the Penguins, playing in all situations and logging a ton of minutes, they have essentially brought in his replacement in the form of Ehrhoff. They also showed last year that they could survive without Martin as he dealt with a number of injuries. Those reading my comment will point to the fact that they had Niskanen, which made that much easier, but they’ll have plenty of options to fill in moving forward. Kris Letang will (hopefully) be healthy, Olli Maatta will take a step forward, Derrick Pouliot will be fighting for a roster spot once he recovers from shoulder surgery and they’ll have a host of other options jockeying for position on the depth chart. Brian Dumoulin is one name that comes to mind immediately as a guy who could potentially start to eat some of those minutes if Martin were to be moved.

I do feel that Martin is the type of guy who probably deserved a contract extension based on his contributions to this team, but there wasn’t a strong belief that he was open to that. With that in mind, let him play out a couple months of the schedule and see how things go. Hopefully you’ll have a better indication of who is ready to step into the lineup. The team can then make a decision to offer an extension or make a trade for a winger, which is still what I think will end up happening before this season concludes.


Ian: The only way Martin gets moved is if Derrick Pouliot comes up to the NHL level and forces his way into the lineup, similar to how the emergence of Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski did in 2008 and 2009 respectively. The trade return wouldn't be as high, as Martin is older and a pending UFA, but if the Penguins were trying to upgrade another position, they could get a comparably talented rental player I think.

A lot depends on how these players fit into Johnston's system. Given Martin's reliable style of play, he seems likely too important to trade away, even if just to lose him to free agency. It also depends on if Ehrhoff is re-signed during the year.

Chad: As excited as I am with the group of young defensemen that the Pens currently have, I am really hesitant to let Paul Martin leave after this year. Martin is so good and so consistent, all the while being a good locker-room guy. That being said, I think Martin will get huge money in free-agency and the Pens could very well just re-sign Ehrhoff to an extension for less money with similar results. Rutherford is going to need to figure out if they are going to bring back Martin by the trade-deadline. If there is any doubt about an extension, I think he should pull the trigger and make a trade for a defenseman and a forward. Going forward, I'm not sure if you need to pay multiple defensmen over $5 million with guys like Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Derrick Pouliot ready to play.



Q. Former first-round pick Beau Bennett has struggled with consistency and with injuries since being in the league. Do you see Bennett having a future with this team, and how to you see him fitting in with the team going into the upcoming season?


Metzer: I felt like it was going to be a make or break season for Bennett and it still may be, but once I heard that he had some ties to new head coach Mike Johnston that thinking changed a bit. The latter seems to have affection for Bennett after watching him grow up and play some hockey with his son out in California. That could be a great thing for Bennett in that he’ll be in a comfortable situation with a coach who will legitimately be rooting for him to succeed.

Obviously, the biggest question with Bennett is going to be his health. He has got to stay on the ice. He has already lost far too much development time over the past three seasons and it has hindered him quite a bit. If he can stay healthy he has the potential to be a big time wild card for the team that is looking a bit short of top-six wingers.


Ian: He is a top six talent in the NHL, he still needs to prove himself, but he'll play somewhere in the top nine for sure. He has a future with the team as long as he can stay healthy. He's still very young and has very good vision, play-making, and a high hockey IQ. His skating is not pretty to watch but he's pretty fast and pretty well conditioned too. If he continues to be unable to stay healthy however, all bets are off.

Ryan: I really like Bennett as a player the few times we have been able to see him. He has quality puck skills and sees the ice well. I am a believer that he can contribute to the team in a top six role. However, if he can't stay healthy it doesn't matter. The Penguins don't have enough top six winger options in the system right now and will need Bennett to take the next step this year. I am cautiously optimistic.


Yohe: It's time to finally find out about Beau Bennett. He's got great hands. He's got a confidence about him, too. But he doesn't enjoy good health and isn't a great skater, which makes me wonder how much of a top-six force he will become. This is the year we find out about him. The Penguins really could use a big season from Bennett, given that no young forwards are on their horizon.

Chad: I see that we are still trying to make Beau Bennett happen. I hope he breaks through and finally lives up to his potential, but I really have my doubts. He's not a great skater and can't stay healthy. But if the Pens need one guy to step up their play this year, it's Beau Bennett. 



Q. Coming off a serious injury at an advanced age, what can the Pens truly expect out of Pascal Dupuis this year?



Metzer: If it were any other player I am not sure I would have high hopes for a return to form, but knowing how Dupuis works and the kind of condition that he is in, he can make a run at getting back to where he was prior to the injury. I will say that when he was inked to his contract extension I long believed that he would eventually slide into more of a third line/penalty killing role and that just might happen this season. It is worth noting that both Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz saw a decrease in offensive production after Dupuis was knocked out of the lineup, so Johnston may opt to put that unit back together. It probably makes more sense for Dupuis to start off on the third line until he gets his feet back under him and then to be sort of a chameleon who can blend in wherever the team needs him as the calendar ticks by.




Yohe: I've seen Dupuis skate a few times this summer and he looks great. That said, I think it would be prudent to reduce his minutes, at least in the first half of the season. You know he'll kill penalties well, provide energy and be a fine locker room presence. He should have a letter on his sweater this season, in my opinion. Will he be able to keep up with Crosby and Kunitz? Probably, but I expect Steve Downie to see more playing time on the top line than many believe. He can play with stars and offense protection. I'd expect Dupuis to play some on the top line, but also in a lesser role during the season's first half. Bringing him back slowly is key. He'll score 15-20 goals and play great defense. Nothing wrong with that.

Ian: 10-15 goals and 25-35 points depending on where he is in the lineup. That seems reasonable. It's a major injury, but this is the first major injury he has had in a very long time, he's been remarkably healthy in his career, but we will ultimately see.

Ryan: I think he will recover just fine from the injury. He is an extremely well conditioned athlete and knee procedures that are performed on athletes these days are very much improved from yesteryear. I do however have concerns about his ability to be an impactful top six forward. Dupuis' had a huge 2012-13 scoring 20 goals in 48 games, but he also had a career high shooting percentage of 14.8%. That percentage dropped down to 7.2% in 2013-14 and he only had 7 goals in 39 games. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but closer to the 7.2%. Pascal Dupuis would best serve the Penguins by playing on the third line, but with limited options in the top six that may not be feasible.

Chad: Pascal Dupuis' work ethic is impressive. The fact that he is ready to play coming off of that injury is not something that everyone could pull off. I think Dupuis is a good player that the Pens missed badly last year. The Pens are so thin at forward that they can't afford long-term injuries from any of their top-nine forwards. I would like to see Dupuis play on the third line to balance the lines out more, but we all know that Crosby wants to play with Dupuis and Kunitz. I think anything over 35 points would be ideal for Dupuis this season.


Q. We all know that the Penguins have a plethora of young and talented defensemen in the prospect pool. With the new regime, it seems as though these guys will finally start to get a real chance to make a real impact with the team. Who do you see stepping up this season for the team? And out of the group of young defensemen that they have, who do you think will eventually be the best overall d-men long-term, including Olli Maatta?


Ian: Despres, Samuelsson, and Dumoulin will all play roles with the team. Harrington and Pouliot could get called up. A lot of these guys are close to ready, Samuelsson and Despres are waiver eligible and will be in the NHL unless the Penguins want to risk losing them to the Islanders, where he can join waiver buddies Tom Hickey and Brian Strait. 

Right now Maatta has the most upside and will be the best long term. He could be like a Finnish Nick Lidstrom. Time will tell, but I would watch him get better game to game. His growth was amazing to watch this season and as long as he continues to play the game that way, he's going to be a potential all star. He's going to get stronger and more explosive as he gets older and matures too, so look out.


Metzer: There was a lot of talk about young defensemen making an impact this season, but if you look at the depth chart and the one-way contracts, there really isn’t a clear path to the NHL for any of the youngsters. They currently have Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Robert Bortuzzo, Rob Scuderi, Olli Maatta, and Simon Despres inked to contracts with only Maatta having the ability to go through waivers. We all know Maatta isn’t going anywhere and I can’t see them taking the risk of a waiver claim on any of the others, which leads me to the intriguing point of Philip Samuelsson. Samuelsson has developed quite a bit over the past few seasons and looks like a guy who could be ready for the next step, but it’s hard to find a slot for him. That is going to force a very tough decision.

Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, and Scott Harrington are all close to making an impact as well. These guys all make me point back to the Paul Martin question and the fact that he very likely could be on the move before it is all said and done. As for who is the best of the group, until I see more of Pouliot, I am throwing my lot in with Maatta. What he did as a 19-year-old was unbelievable and he looks like he is only going to get better.


Yohe:  The Penguins are loaded with talent on the blue line, but none of the current prospects will exceed Olli Maatta. This is a special player, a guy who will participate in numerous all-star games. He's the total package.

Derrick Pouliot will probably play most of this season at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. I can tell you that Mike Johnston absolutely loves Pouliot, his former player at Portland. Johnston told me two weeks ago that he believes Pouliot is ready for the NHL now. Of course, he's still nursing a shoulder injury and the Penguins are loaded with depth on the blue line with Letang, Martin, Ehrhoff, Maatta, Despres, Bortuzzo, Scuderi and Brian Dumoulin.
Of all the young defensemen in the system, this is how I would rank them, in terms of who will be the best NHL player: 1. Maatta; 2. Pouliot; 3. Despres; 4. Harrington; 5. Dumoulin


Ryan: I like the idea of Derrick Pouliot spending some time down in WB/S as he comes back from his shoulder injury and just making mince meat out of the AHL. Pouliot has played for Johnston and is the kind of defenseman that Johnston speaks of when discussing his approach to hockey. Pouliot was taken 14 spots ahead of Maatta so he does have some pedigree. Long term it will be a battle between Maatta and Pouliot, individual preferences by the evaluator will decide who is better. I feel like Pouliot/Maatta will be a lot like deciphering between Letang/Martin on who is the better player. It is a win win for Pittsburgh though, I think both will be very successful.

Chad: Well given the current makeup of the roster, it seems as if one young defenseman will get a chance to contribute this year. Scuderi, Martin, Ehrhoff, Maatta, and Martin all have spots locked up. That leaves one spot every night, unless the Pens play with seven defensemen. I really like Despres, who I picked to step up and have a breakout year, although the way Brian Dumoulin has looked this summer is making me reconsider that. I think Pouliot is easily the most talented guy out of the group, but I think either Maatta or Dumoulin will end up being the more consistent player. 


Q: Last year, Olli Maatta came out of nowhere to be one of the top rookie defensemen in the entire NHL. Who do you see having a breakout year for the Penguins this year, if anyone?

Ryan: I think it has to be Beau Bennett. If he is healthy he should be given a look in the top six and if he is playing in that role I have to believe he will complement Crosby or Malkin nicely. 



Ian: Beau Bennett. I'm going to say he's finally healthy and has a 20 goal, 50+ point season playing throughout the top nine. Past him, I'm going to say Pouliot. He could really wow people if he slides into Johnston's system smoothly. A Pouliot-Letang powerplay would be disgusting. Pouliot can carry and distribute the puck on the powerplay, which would allow Letang, Sid, and the rest of the crew to get open for more one-timers.

Metzer: think that we are all hoping for a breakout during camp from Kasperi Kapanen, but I am going to go with Simon Despres. While he has had his ups and downs over the past few seasons, he is slated to get a long look this season. That opportunity to stay in the lineup consistently and his not having to worry about every play he makes on the ice being his last could be enough to springboard him a very impressive season. He took a big step forward in the playoffs for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last spring and I expect that to translate to the NHL. Everyone is pointing to Kris Letang as a player who will thrive in an environment that doesn’t feature Dan Bylsma’s complex breakout schemes, but I think Despres is right there with him.

Yohe: I don't see any young player making a real splash on this team. The only candidate is Kasperi Kapanen, who is a mesmerizing talent. However, the fact that an injury will keep him out of next week's rookie tournament is troubling and probably will hurt his chances of making the squad. Still, he'll get a look. They love his talent. If you consider Despres a young player, and he still is, then maybe he should be considered as well. I could see him having a good season. 

Chad: Until his injury, I was going to say Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen is ready to contribute right now, especially if he plays with a Crosby or Malkin. That being said, no I have my doubts and suspect that he will spend the year down in Wilkes-Barre. So instead, I will go with Simon Despres. Despres has shown flashes of brilliance and now that he will finally have a fair chance to play every night, on top of having a coach that seems to get the most out of young puck-moving defenseman, I think Despres breaks through and has a solid season.


Q: The Penguins traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. In the end, who do you think will come out as the true winner of this this trade? How do you see Hornqvist and Spaling impacting this team?

Yohe: Am I allowed to say both teams won? The Predators needed a goal scorer, and they got one. The Penguins needed more depth, and a couple of good two-way players. That's exactly what they received in the deal. Much has been made about Neal's attitude being the primary reason for the trade. While he could be salty to deal with - he and I had a couple of less than cordial encounters - his teammates liked him. James Neal didn't do anything to hurt the Penguins locker room and he will score a ton of goals in Nashville. The Penguins received a good player and a solid player for a borderline great player. I think it works out well for both teams.

RyanI am not so concerned with who "wins" the trade as much as I am concerned with if the Penguins are better because of it. I think Hornqvist is a nice fit for the Penguins and I think it is even money on if he scores more goals than Neal sans Malkin next year. The Spaling part of the trade is confusing to me. His possession numbers are right in line with some of the bottom feeders from last year's bottom six group. A lot of this trade was getting rid of Neal's personality while banking on Hornqvist clicking with Sid or Geno. I still find it hard to believe that this was the best deal available.  

Ian:  I think Spaling's is going to have a solid season. He's a really high energy guy, seems to fit what Johnston is trying to do. Hornqvist is the anti-Neal. He has no real slap shot of any kind, and goes into the slot to take a beating and score goals from a few feet away. I don't think Neal is going to be a point-per-game player with Nashville, and he will probably go down to 25-30 goals, 50-65 points. A talented player for sure, but a complementary one. The Penguins had no one who would get dirty in front of the net, Hornqvist does.

Metzer: Hornqvist will have something going for him that Neal does not – a chance to play with Crosby or Malkin. While Nashville acquired a couple of offensive minded centers in Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, neither has shown an ability to perform at the level of the aforementioned duo. Both are also at a bit of a crossroads in their careers.

Neal possesses high end offensive skill, but he hasn't shown an ability to thrive without someone to play off of. He’ll get his points, but Hornqvist will get his as well.

Hornqvist is a guy I have always liked. He has a great ability to get to the net and disrupt goaltenders and that will help he and his linemates. He’ll also cash in some of the opportunities that Neal and others in Pittsburgh over the past couple of seasons missed by avoiding the crease. Everything that you hear about him speaks to the fact that he is not afraid to speak his mind and immediately sounds like a guy who will fill the void left by Matt Niskenen in speaking daily/nightly, win or lose.

Spaling is an interesting player. He had career highs in most categories last season, though I don’t imagine he’ll get much time on a power play, an area he contributed to in Nashville. Many point to his possession numbers as something to be alarmed about, but I see a guy who plays hard every shift, isn’t afraid to throw his body around and can chip in offensively.

It’s going to take some time to determine a winner in this deal, but heading into this season I don’t believe that the Penguins offense has been as negatively impacted as many others.


Chad: I really like Hornqvist, and I think he can be just as productive, if not more than James Neal, given that he will now play with Malkin and Crosby. Nashville plays one of the least goal-scoring friendly systems in the NHL. Yet Hornqvist has constantly put up top-six numbers. He's a good skater that will go to the net with every opportunity and will now be playing with two world-class centers. Spaling is a average bottom-six forward that adds some depth, although I think the Pens would have been better off getting a first-round pick instead. 


I've heard some really bad stories involving Neal and I think the Pens are better off without him in that locker-room. Neal's numbers will go down in Nashville, thus allowing the Pens to get the most out of this deal. Like Josh said, this trade was needed for both teams. 



Q: What is this team's biggest strength and biggest weakness going into the 2014-2015 season? 


Metzer:  At a quick glance I see a team that is again going to live and die via special teams. They’ll have an effective penalty kill and they’ll be able to torch teams that take penalties against them. Look for them to hover in the top five in each category. Also should mention that a big strength is going to be star power, even without a clear cut set of wingers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will each compete for an Art Ross Trophy.


I am a bit concerned about five-on-five scoring. That is an area that might cause them some trouble, especially if they have nights where they power play isn’t clicking or not getting opportunities.

Ryan: I believe their biggest weakness is their forward depth. The Penguins bottom six grouping will indeed be improved from last year, but that isn't saying much. Outside of Kunitz and Hornqvist there are a lot of questions about plugging the two remaining spots in the Penguins top six. The options they end up using will have an impact on how the rest of the forward depth chart plays out. Losing a player like Jussi Jokinen is going to hurt more than I think people realize.

Yohe: Biggest strengths = Down the middle (Crosby, Malkin and Sutter are tough to beat), the goaltending situation and the unbelievable offensive talent on the blue line.
Weaknesses = Overall team toughness (which remains an issue) and the top-six wingers


Ian: Depending on the healthy of Bennett and Dupuis, I'd say at forward. Other than that, they could use another 20 goal scorer in the lineup. The depth they have however, combined with the superstar talent, makes up for it though.

Chad: Rob Scuderi. Seriously, that's my answer. 



Q: Looking at the roster right now, give a quick prediction for this team in both the regular season and where you see them finishing in the very end.


Metzer: The roster is still a work in progress, but there is no reason that they still cannot compete for a Metro Division title this season. I see them winning the division of getting a four seed and winning at least a round in the playoffs.
This prediction could change as early as October!
Thanks for having me gang! 

Yohe: Still see the Penguins winning the Metro Division, though I think they'll be pushed hard by the Washington Capitals, who will be much better with Barry Trotz in charge. I also see Columbus and the Rangers as playoff teams. New Jersey, Philadelphia and Carolina probably won't be very good this season. The Islanders are an x-factor.

As for the postseason, it's tough to say because the roster will look considerably different in April. As currently constructed, the Penguins are not a Stanley Cup team. They're missing a physical defenseman and a couple of forwards, in my opinion
.

Ian: I could see them making it to the Conference or the Cup Finals. All you need is a few hot players and the right mix at the right time. They'll probably be in the running to win the Metropolitan division trophy.

Ryan: I think this is still a team that is very capable of competing for a divisional title. No team in the division can claim to have everything figured out, each team will carry their own set of issues with them into the season. Only one team has Crosby and Malkin in their prime years and that should lead to regular season success. As for the playoffs the Penguins will need to up their forward depth and receive league average goaltending at a minimum. I don't believe the Penguins will win the Cup with their current roster construction, but still plenty of time to make changes.

Chad: I'm supposed to say that the Pens are going to win the Stanley Cup, right? I think they can, but I think they need to find a way to move Scuderi to Siberia and they need another top-six forward. That being said, there's only two other teams I can see making it out of the east other than the Pens as of right now, so once again a trip to the Stanley Cup finals is a realistic possibility and should obviously be this team's goal. 


Alright folks, thanks for reading. To our guests, well they are simply the best. Make sure you follow all of them throughout the season and continue to check back with our site for the latest news and opinions regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins. The season is less than a month away! 

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