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Friday, June 26, 2015

No Easy Task Ahead by @BrianK_PI

The NHL draft kicks off tonight as teams across the league turn their eye towards the future for the weekend. With just a single pick in the first four rounds, Pittsburgh turns to the more immediate future, as the team is trying to retool its roster after a brief appearance in the 2015 playoffs. Though the team put forth a valiant effort against the Rangers while undermanned, the scoreboard helped mask some of the issues the team struggled with throughout the year. They did, after all, manage to score just a single goal in each of their four losses.

The Penguins enter the offseason needing to add a top 6 winger, a top 4 defenseman, and to rebuild a bottom 6 that only returns regulars Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling, two players many have called to be traded. Rumors have linked the Penguins to virtually every top 6 winger rumored to be available, but for an organization lacking in both draft picks and impact prospects it will be difficult to make a deal work.


A quick look at the Penguins' forwards shows some great pieces already in place and then not much more supporting them. While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both generational talents, the Penguins have been using their star centers as band-aids to cover up the holes in the lineup instead of building up a strong core around them. The common refrain echoed from all levels of the organization is that they team will always be able to compete with those two players in the mix, yet it often sounds more like an excuse for the rest of the lineup instead of a promise of things to come.

Pittsburgh enters the offseason with two top 6 wingers firmly entrenched in their spots (Hornqvist, Perron), several options in house to address the other two spots, and a pressing need to add another top 6 caliber winger. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have been mainstays on Crosby's line, but it's fair to question how much longer that should continue. They'll each be 36 before the start of the season. Kunitz struggled badly to finish the 2014-15 season. A torn ACL ended a down year for Dupuis in 2013-14, though he had a strong start last season (along with most of the team) before a blood clot shut him down for the year. And a look at their Super WOWYs questions how much they've been adding to the top 6 on their own merit.

Penguins wingers with Crosby, Malkin, or neither over the past three seasons (*Neal over his three seasons in Pittsburgh from 2011-2014)
The Pens also could decide to go younger. Kasperi Kapanen will be given a shot to make the team in training camp, although only a year removed from his draft it'll be a surprise if he forces his way into the top half of the lineup. Beau Bennett has shown flashes of talent during his time in Pittsburgh, but unfortunately those have been sandwiched between much longer stretches of inconsistent play. He showed some good chemistry with Evgeni Malkin during his rookie season but has failed to build on that the past two seasons in predominately third line roles. If the Penguins sign Sergei Plotnikov when FA opens on July 1st as has been reported, they'll be able to add a low risk, high reward option that should at the least improve their depth on the wings while having the potential of providing a viable top 6 winger for a low cap hit. Given the questions surrounding the in house options, the best solution for addressing the top 6 winger need would be acquiring one from outside the organization, most likely through a trade given the weak FA class.

Acquiring a legitimate top 6 winger would not only bolster the top half of the lineup, but it would also bolster the third line by forcing either Dupuis or Kunitz down in the lineup. Players like Oskar Sundqvist and Scott Wilson, among others, could provide cheap solutions in the bottom six, as could thrifty free agent pick ups similar to the Blake Comeau and Steve Downie signing last offseason. The status of Sutter and Spaling will affect the need to address the bottom six through free agency, and shedding those two contracts can go a long way towards providing the flexibility to address the top portion of the lineup. However, the team's best trade chips are players the Penguins can't afford to trade away.


The defense, while young and promising, will also likely be one of the weakest units the team has iced since the Stanley Cup seasons. When the dust settles after free agency, over the past two offseasons the Pens likely will have seen 3 legitimate top 4 defensemen leave via free agency in Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Matt Niskanen. While Brooks Orpik's best days are well in the past, he was still trusted to eat big minutes. Simon Despres was given away at the trade deadline, and he responded by showing how well he could play when not buried on the bottom pairing with an achor like Rob Scuderi. In 32 games (including playoffs) with Anaheim, Despres averaged 0.97 pts/60 and a Corsi For of 52.4% at even strength while averaging nearly 20 minutes per game. As one of three defensemen obtained by Anaheim at the trade deadline, Despres was expected to be the 7th defensemen before his play forced Bruce Boudreau to not only keep him in the lineup, but give him top 4 minutes as well.

What once was a position of organizational strength has now been stretched thin. Kris Letang has established himself as one of the most talented defensemen in the league, but he comes into next season having missed the final 15 games in 2015 after suffering another concussion. Olli Maatta was limited to just 20 games after needing a second shoulder surgery, an injury that hopefully doesn't become a chronic problem for the talented blueliner. Derrick Pouliot is an incredibly gifted defenseman, but he'll be relied on to shoulder a much larger load with less than a half season of NHL action under his belt. As he gets more ice time against more difficult competition, his work in the defensive zone will be more sharply critiqued, though a strong possession game will help offset any defensive struggles. Ian Cole would be the likely front runner for the 4th spot as it stands now, but he's more suited for a role on the bottom pairing with the ability to play up in the lineup if injuries occur. Just like the top six, the team needs to add a top four defenseman to strengthen the position or run the risk of facing some serious depth issues.

Either way, the margin for error on the blueline is the thinnest it's been in a long while, and that's assuming everyone stays healthy. Letang becomes even more indispensable than he was previously, and he was already one of the players the team could least afford to lose. The team also won't have the stable of young defenders from Wilkes Barre-Scranton to rely on as in previous years, with likely only Scott Harrington remaining in WBS to start the season from the once strong prospect pool. The pressure also increases on Marc-Andre Fleury to make up for where the defense could be lacking. If Fleury can sustain the level of play he displayed against the Rangers in the playoffs, the team should be in good hands regardless. If Fleury's play regresses from this past season, then a team that had difficulty scoring goals at times in 2014-15 likely could have difficulty preventing them in 2015-16.

It's going to be a difficult task for the Penguins to add the pieces needed to keep the team in Stanley Cup contention, and it'll take a fine balancing act to add talent without gutting the future or salary cap flexibility. It might be next to impossible with Jim Rutherford in charge. Rutherford has shown a willingness to throw value out the window and overpay for what he deems to be the best fit. This of course presents a problem as the team doesn't have a lot of valuable trade pieces and Rutherford's vision has resulted in an objectively awful track record. Nevertheless, things need to be done and things will happen, and there are definitely scenarios where Pittsburgh passes the offseason with flying colors. But buckle up baby, because it's likely to be a bumpy ride.

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