Five Questions the Pens Need Answered to Hoist the Cup by @ChrisRBarron - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Five Questions the Pens Need Answered to Hoist the Cup by @ChrisRBarron

Just two short days away from the drop of the puck on the Penguins 2014-2015 season.  For many teams, making the playoffs is the goal or advancing in the playoffs, for this Pittsburgh Penguins team - as has been the case every year since they last hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup - it's Cup or bust.

After a few relatively quiet offseasons, this past offseason was a season of change for the Pens.  Out was head coach Dan Bylsma - the memories of his Stanley Cup championship a distant memory.  Out was GM Ray Shero - just a year after being praised as the best NHL executive by his peers. Gone was 40 goal scorer James Neal, long-time Penguin Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen who had been one of the few bright lights on a shaky blueline, and almost the entire bottom 6 was sent packing.

With so much change - and with a growing concern that the Penguins are wasting the best years of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - here are five questions the Pens will need answered to once again hoist the cup. 

1.  Can Mike Johnston Succeed where Dan Bylsma Could Not?

After another disappointing early exit from the playoffs last year, it wasn't surprising that Dan Bylsma was fired by the Penguins - this is a what have you done for me lately league, and his 2009 Stanley Cup win seemed like a distant memory.  While Bylsma's firing was not a surprise, how he was fired and the circus surrounding finding his replacement was surprising. 

New head coach Mike Johnston certainly didn't appear to be the Penguins first choice, but after their bizarre offseason search to replace Bylsma, Johnston - the former Portland Winter Hawks head coach - is the man in charge in Pittsburgh.  The question now is whether Johnston can succeed where Dan Bylsma could not. 

There were whispers about the "country club" atmosphere in the Penguins locker room and Bylsma came under criticism - especially during the playoffs - for his failure to make in game adjustments.

For Mike Johnston the only barometer for success, fair or not, will be whether the Penguins can make it to the Stanley Cup finals this year. 

2.  Can Kris Letang Stay Healthy

In the summer of 2013, then GM Ray Shero signed Kris Letang to an 8-year $58 million dollar contract.  At the time, there were many in Pittsburgh and around the league who questioned whether Letang was worth the money the Penguins have invested in him - and that was before Letang suffered a stroke that limited him to just 37 games.

If the Penguins are going to succeed this year - and indeed in the years ahead - they will need a healthy Kris Letang. 

In the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season, Letang average more than a point a game and finished 3rd in the Norris Trophy voting.  The Penguins blue line was already an area of concern before the departure of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to DC this offseason.  Given the Pens defense lapses and collapses - particularly in the playoffs - over the last few seasons, it is hard to imagine the Pens making a cup run without a healthy Letang.

3.  Does Dupuis have any Gas Left in the Tank?

After years of listening to Penguins fans and talking heads ask the "can they find a winger for Sid" question, the Pens thought they had found their answer.  Crosby flanked by Chris Kunitz on his right side and Pascal Dupuis on his left side became the most stable and effective line for the Penguins during the lockout shortened 2012-2103 season. 

The emergence of Kunitz wasn't quite as surprising as the emergence of the Dupuis.  Dupuis was little more than an afterthought in the blockbuster trade for Marian Hossa that brought him to Pittsburgh.  While Hossa left after the 2008 season, Dupuis - who had only once notched more than 27 points in a season - stuck around and developed into a top-6 winger.

Dupuis who recorded 59 points off of 25 goals in 2011-2012 and who tallied 38 points off of 20 goals in the 48 game shortened 2012-2013 season became an anchor on the Penguins top line.

For his efforts, and at the urging of linemate Sidney Crosby, Dupuis was rewarded with a 4-year $15 million deal during last offseason. 

Unfortunately for the Penguins, after an ACL and MCL injury that ended his season in late December of 2013, Dupuis has gone from an answer to a question mark.

Recovering from such a serious injury would be a challenge for any player, but at 35 years old and with a game premised on speed, the challenges for Dupuis to return to form are even more difficult.

Does Dupuis have anything left?  Can he once again be the reliable anchor on the Penguins first line?  If the answer to these questions aren't "yes" than the Penguins are in trouble.  The truth is that the Pens don't have the cap space or the young forwards in the system to replace what Pascal Dupuis meant to this team before his injury.

4.  Can the Young D-Men Step Up?

The Pittsburgh Penguins blue line was shaky before the departure of Brooks Oprik and Matt Niskanen.  While the Pens were able to ink former Canucks and Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrofff to a cap friendly 1-year $4 million deal, the Pens - because of their tenuous cap situation - will need one of their promising young d-men to step up and fill the void left on the blue line.

The bad news for the Penguins is that they are relying on the emergence of an untested young defenseman, the good news is that they have a bevy of highly touted prospects on the blue line and that after the play of young Olli Maatta last season they know its possible that one of their young d-men can step up.

The answer to this question could come in many different forms.  Will the answer be former first-rounder Simon Despres?  Will the big bodied d-man finally get the chance to play after mysteriously being in Dan Bylsma's dog house the last two seasons.  Will it be former #8 overall pick Derrick Pouliot once he returns from injury? How about former second-round pick Scott Harrington who has impressed Pens coaches during this training camp?  Or will it be another second-rounder Brian Dumoulin - the 6'4" defenseman who came over from the Carolina Hurricanes in the Jordan Staal deal? 

While its unclear who the answer is, one thing is clear, a young d-man will have to step up if the Penguins are going to make a deep run in the playoffs.

5. Can the Bottom 6 Go From Liability to Asset

There was a time when the Penguins bottom 6 was an asset, when Jordan Staal anchored a 3rd line flanked by forwards Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.  After Staal's departure via trade after the 2011-2012 season, and Cooke and Kennedy's departure via free agency after the 2012-2013 season, the bottom 6 for the Penguins has largely been a tire fire.  A cap squeezed Shero, who lacked in house options at forward, was forced to dumpster dive for bottom 6 options.  Outside of Brandon Sutter, the parade of bottom 6 players the Penguins trotted out last season were marginal NHL-ers at best (see Taylor Pyatt, Matt D'Agostini, etc).

If the Penguins are going to win, particularly in the playoffs, then they need to be able to roll 4 lines, which means the Pens bottom six will have to go from a liability to an asset.

New GM Jim Rutherford basically cleaned house when it comes to the bottom 6 - with the exception of Brandon Sutter who he once dealt away when he was GM in Carolina.  The new additions on the bottom 6 - Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie - will need to contribute in a meaningful fashion if the Penguins are going to make a run.

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