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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Switching Gears by @BrianK_PI

The Penguins' free fall down the standings before stumbling into the 2015 NHL Playoffs is likely the lowest point the franchise has encountered in the six years since winning the Stanley Cup. A quick five games later, and the future looked bleak. The Pens entered the offseason with major depth issues, with a lack of tradeable assets, a relatively barren prospect pool, and a good number of their draft picks in other teams' hands. Like Boston, the team Pittsburgh was racing for 9th place down the stretch, it seemed like the window for being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender wasn't just closing, but that the shades were being drawn too.

Fast forward just a few months and it's a wildly different picture. The biggest reason for this has to be the biggest move the team made. When the Pens' season ended after game 5, nobody could have forseen the team being able to add a player of Phil Kessel's caliber, let alone doing so without sacrificing a useful roster player. Yet a perfect storm of Toronto wanting to get rid of Kessel seemingly at any cost and Pittsburgh being the only team on Kessel's approved list of 8 left the Penguins with a shocking amount of leverage in a deal they knocked out of the park.

Adding Kessel also pushes players down further in the lineup, strengthening those lines by default. The team added Sergei Plotnikov from Russia to further increase the depth and competition in the lineup, but there were still work to be done. In his 3 years in Pittsburgh, Brandon Sutter was a player whose paycheck ($3.3 million AAV) was bigger than his contributions on the ice. His possession numbers have been appalling, and even scoring 21 goals this year isn't enough to offset his deficiencies. The time to strike was now, with his value as high as it would be around the league, and the team did just that, trading Sutter and signing his replacement in Eric Fehr  in a series of moves announced in quick succession. Signing Fehr and acquiring Nick Bonino gives the Pens two bottom six players who are very capable possession players, can help with the secondary scoring, and solidify a very strong group of centers from the top to the bottom of the lineup. The team could also move Fehr out to wing if someone like Oskar Sundqvist forces his way into the lineup.

Comparison of Brandon Sutter, Eric Fehr, and Nick Bonino courtesy of OwnThePuck.com
Given the transformation of the team's forward group, it's time to address what's likely to be the Pens' weakness next season: defense. The current depth chart could really use another top four caliber defenseman, and there are available free agents who could give them team what they need. Rutherford has stated that the team intends to go young on defense, and he doubled down on that stance today, but it's time to switch gears and do what's best for the team. It's certainly better for a contending team to give minutes to a young defenseman at the expense of a Scuderi or Eaton when they have a strong top four; it's a much more precarious situation to give the young players important minutes and hope they can keep up. Considering the injury situations of the team's two best defensemen, it should become top priority to bring in someone like Cody Franson now to solidify the defensemen instead of waiting to address a pressing need at a cost of assets the team can't really afford to part with once the season has begun.

The 2015 offseason has been a big change from the year that came before it. The Penguins have gone from targeting players who could provide grit and toughness to targeting good possession players who can help the team put the puck in the net. The recent moves, including the hiring of War-On-Ice co-creator Sam Ventura, indicate that the team is finally willing to embrace the analytical movement Jim Rutherford promised during his introductory press conference. And given the sudden change, it's fair to wonder if the Pens have switched gears in the front office too and allowed Jason Botterill and Bill Guerin more control over the team's operations. Either way, a team that just months ago seemed to be on the decline now cannot be ignored in the Stanley Cup conversation.

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