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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins: Top Storylines Heading Into The Season

The regular season is finally here. On Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin the 2014-2015 season against the Anaheim Ducks. For the first time in the last few years, a lot of fans, including myself, are excited about the start of the season. A new coach, general manager, and a revamped roster are the reasons for this reborn enthusiasm. 

This season is not a rebuilding year for the Penguins. Rather, it is a transition year. The Penguins have had disappointing playoff exits in each of the last five seasons. The window for another Stanley Cup while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their prime is closing fast. Yet, with a thin Eastern Conference, and one of the top-five-or-six most talented rosters in the league, even in this transition year, the Penguins enter the season as contenders for the Stanley Cup. 

That said, here are my top storylines for the Penguins heading into the 2014-2015 season. 

Evgeni Malkin: Malkin is always a focal point in these types of lists. He's the second best player on this team and, when healthy, one of the best players in the entire NHL. Of course, the "if healthy" tag is always attached to both Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Malkin has missed at least 15 games in three of the last four seasons. 

On top of that, Malkin, who primarily played with Jussi Jokinen and James Neal the last two seasons, will have to get acclimated to brand new linemates, as well as a new head coach. 

There have already been mixed reports about how Malkin truly feels about all of the changes. It would be nice to see Malkin put together a full season, especially since he was on pace for the second most points in the league last year before he got injured. 

Beau Bennett: Beau Bennett looked incredible during training camp and into the beginning of preseason. In fact, Bennett looked like - dare I say - a top-six forward. This was the year that Bennett was going to stay healthy and live up to his potential. Then rookie forward Kasperi Kapanen accidentally stepped on his foot in practice. Now Bennett will start the season injured. He is expected to miss the first dozen or so games. 

Bennett, the former first-round pick, is a restricted free-agent after this season. He has scored six goals and 21 points in 47 games, but bad luck with the injuries have slowed down any natural progression. It will interesting to see if Bennett can get some top-six minutes whenever he returns to the lineup. Another injury, or a lack of production, could end up being the end of Bennett in Pittsburgh. 

Rob Scuderi: It seems as though the Penguins are temporarily stuck with Scuderi. The contract is brutal, with a cap-hit that is way too high. To make matters worse, the Penguins are implementing a system that asks its defenseman to do a lot of skating and carrying the puck, which are not exactly strengths in Scuderi's game. Also, the Penguins have a really solid group of young defensive prospects, most of whom are ready for the NHL. 

The Pens had to send Scott Harrington to the AHL, and Scuderi looks like he will be in the lineup more nights than not, at least for the start of the season. Scuderi was brought in to play with Kris Letang. Now the Penguins have an aging defenseman making $3.25 million-per year, who should probably be watching from the press box when the Pens deploy a healthy roster. 

Was Scuderi so bad last year because of his injury? Many people believe he will have a rebound year. It will be interesting to see how he looks in the new system. If he continues to play sub-par, one has to wonder if Jim Rutherford trade him. Or if any GM would take on that contract if he wanted to.

Patric Hornqvist: Pens fans that showed up for the preseason are already excited about what they saw from Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist is a good skater, skilled, and is just a beast down-low by the oppositions net. This is just what the Pens needed. He was impressive despite the fact that he did not even get a chance to play with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. 

For right or wrong, Hornqvist will always be linked to James Neal, who was a fan favorite in this town. A lot of Pens fans were upset about the team trading Neal. Most of those fans will likely forget all about Neal when they get a glimpse of what Hornqvist can do, especially when he gets a chance to play alongside Malkin and/or Crosby. Hornqvist recorded 86 points in his last 100 games for Nashville. His two most common linemates during that stretch: Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher.

Jim Rutherford: The Rutherford Era started off
pretty damn bad with the search for the new head coach. After that was resolved, the rest of the moves by Rutherford have been fairly popular. He already made a big trade, sending Neal to Nashville for Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Then he added some much needed scoring depth on the the team by signing Blake Comeau and Steve Downie to uprgrade the bottom six. Despite needing more forward depth, Rutherford snagged defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year deal worth $4 million. Ehrhoff probably could have gotten more money elsewhere. In the end, this signing could eventually set up a trade including Paul Martin. 

Rutherford has already improved the roster from what it looked like to start last season. Rutherford has a history of making big trades. Hell, he has already made one in Pittsburgh and the season hasn't even started yet. Paul Martin is pretty much gone after this season and the fact that the Pens need a top-six forward could lead to another big trade. 

I am actually excited about some of the moves Rutherford can and will make, especially when his team has a chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Scuderi could be moved. He could also move Marc-Andre Fleury who's in the last year of his deal.

Mike Johnston: The new head coach is the one option that 95% of Pens' fans had never heard of until the day he was hired. Johnston, 57, had never been a head coach in the NHL before being named to the position. Now he is coaching for a team that has two of the best players in the world. A team that is expected to compete for a Stanley Cup. He is replacing a coach who previously won a Cup in 2009, who wasn't fired because the team was doing bad, but because he fell short of getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals one too many times. 

We have already seen a preview of the new system that Johnston will employ. The breakouts are much different, and most agree that this system will help the Pens' top players make more plays. If you want to read a really good and in-depth article about the new system, check out this article on dkonpittsburghsports.com. 

With an exciting new system, a talented roster, Johnston is certainly in a position to succeed. However, the expectations are huge. How big of a leash does Johnston have? One has to  wonder how much power Rick Tocchet, his assistant head coach, has. Tocchet is beloved in Pittsburgh and also has head coaching experience. I think that is definitely something that everyone should keep in the back of their minds. 

Paul Martin: If you were following the team during the offseason, you realize that Paul Martin probably won't be in Pittsburgh after this year. Martin and his agent have already stated that they want to test the free-agency market next year. Martin has arguably been the Pens' best overall defenseman over the last three seasons. Going into the 2013-2014 season, the Penguins have one of the best top-four defensemen in the NHL with Kris Letang, Martin, Ehrhoff, and Olli Maatta.

However, many think that the Pens could and should use Martin as part of a trade to get a top-six winger. Of course, it wouldn't be ideal to let Martin walk away next summer without getting anything in return. 

That being said, the Pens' blueline would instantly become pretty thin if either of Letang, Ehrhoff, are no longer on the team. The only other defensemen the Pens have are guys under 25 years-old, and Rob Scuderi. If the Pens can avoid losing Martin for nothing, getting a top-six forward in return, can they really pass up the opportunity to do so? 

Marc-Andre Fleury: 2014-2015 is obviously the most important season in Marc-Andre Fleury's career. Fleury, who turns 30 in November, is playing for a new contract, which will also be his last chance at another "big" contact. Fleury is a free-agent after this year and unlike Martin, has stated that he wants to stay and win here. Yet, after playing subpar in the playoffs since he won a Stanley Cup, the Penguins have decided to wait until after the season to negotiate with him. 

Jesse Marshall, of The Pensblog, wrote recently that Fleury allows more goals than the league average yet makes over $5 million a year. Should a team that has a shortage of depth at forward really continue to overspend for average-to-below average goaltending? 

I am a huge fan of Fleury, the person and the player. However, I would completely understand it if the Pens looked elsewhere for cheaper goaltending. It would make good hockey sense. 

For Fleury, I fully expect his best year to date. Despite his late-game gaffe against the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, MAF actually showed a lot more poise and confidence in the 2013-2014 playoffs. However, if the Pens are going to get anywhere near the Stanley Cup, they are going to need Fleury to return to his 2007-2008 form, which he has not come close to since then. 

All things considered, this could very easily be the last year we see Fleury in a Pens' jersey. 

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