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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pens Level Of Success Rides On Defense

Olli Maatta (photo: Gregory Shamus NHLI)
The 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins are going to score goals. They will likely score a lot of goals.  There is a good chance they average four or more goals a game, but what will determine the level of success they will see, is if the Penguins defensive corps can prevent teams from scoring five goals a game.

With a top six that will include Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, David Perron, and Patric Hornqvist, goals won't be much of a problem. 

The real issue is whether the defenseman can stay healthy and whether they can give this powerful offense a chance to win games. If they can do that, they will win a lot of games. If they don't, another heartbreaking early playoff exit will be in order. 

As has been the custom for the last eight seasons, Kris Letang will be the defensive spark plug. If healthy, he'll get lots of ice time and there is no reason to believe Letang won't collect a decent amount of points jumping in with the likes of the Kunitz-Crosby-Kessel line and a loaded first power play unit. 

Letang, 28, has not played in a full season since 2010-2011. This includes two consecutive seasons in which he played in just 35 and 37 games. 

Olli Maatta, 21, played in 78 games in his rookie season in 2013-2014. Last season he fell victim to a shoulder injury and played in just 20 games. 

Even with Maatta and Letang missing time with injuries, the Penguins gave up 204 goals which was tied with the Winnipeg Jets for 10th best in the NHL last season. 

The Penguins netted 217 goals in 2014-2015 and it's safe to say they will score more than that this season.

If the defense can stay healthy and perform by staying in the 200-215 goals given up range, the lack of defensive depth won't be a major issue and will be overshadowed by the offense. 

If Letang and Maatta can't stay healthy, that poses a major problem for the Penguins and will likely send the front office scrambling to strike a deal to improve the depth of an inexperienced blue line corps. 

In fact, eight of the 13 players currently listed on the Penguins defensive roster have less than a full season of NHL experience. 

Winning high scoring games will only get a team into the playoffs. In the playoffs, where the best of the best face each other, defensive depth and inexperience is exploited and trying to win games 5-4 is a recipe for failure.

It is still likely that the Penguins will try to bolster their defense before the NHL trade deadline regardless of if they get plagued by injuries or struggle. Dustin Byfuglien, who is slated to be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2015-2016 season, has already been linked to the Penguins as a possible destination. However, with two million in salary cap space, the Penguins will have to clear an expensive contract to make room for someone like Byfuglien. 

The Penguins will go only as far as it's defense takes them in 2015-2016.

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