The Pittsburgh Penguins walked out of 2014-2015 with a surprising problem: their offence came up short. While they were normally a playoff-ready hockey club, the latest edition of the Penguins found themselves eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers. They saw Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin come up with next to nothing in terms of goal-scoring, too.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with a 43-27-12 record, good for 98 points in the Metropolitan Division. They needed a win against the Buffalo Sabres on the last game of the season to make it into the post-season, going 3-5-2 over their last 10 games. They scored 217 goals, putting them in the bottom half of their division. Luckily, they only allowed 204 goals against.
Nevertheless, the Penguins knew they had to make adjustments. The biggest came in the acquisition of Phil Kessel, the former Toronto Maple leafs whipping boy. Pittsburgh sent forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling along with defenceman Scott Harrington to T-Dot (along with some draft picks). They also got blueliner Tim Erixon out of the deal, which isn’t a bad thing.
An offensive group that potentially includes the line of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel is stunning. Pittsburgh had been shuffling the deck up front for a while, trying all sorts of combinations with Sid to determine the right fix. Patric Hornqvist was the guy for a while, but many believe that Kessel will be the upgrade the team’s after.
Crosby still had a respectable year. He posted 84 points in 77 games, including 28 goals, and he’s one of the best players in the NHL. Period. Malkin, too, is among the league’s elite. He had 70 points in 69 games, including 28 goals – nine of which were on the power play. Kessel, meanwhile, had 61 points in 82 games but finished minus-34. On the Leafs.
With the benefit of Crosby, the Penguins saw Hornqvist have a career year with 51 points in 64 games. That’s probably not the norm, but the 28-year-old Swede can still put the puck in the net. Chris Kunitz is also a threat as a veteran winger. He put up 40 points last season. Also, Pittsburgh will look to Nick Bonino at centre and that’s not a bad thing. He has two-way instincts and found the scoreboard for 15 goals last season.
Pittsburgh’s defence is a bit of a mixed bag. While any group that boasts Kris Letang is bound to be worth something, the Penguins have some blueline struggles to address. Letang is one of the league’s best defencemen and he had another noble year last season, posting 54 points in 69 games and averaging 25:29 of ice time a game. He’s emerging as a real leader for the club.
Without Paul Martin in the fold, the Penguins will turn to the likes of Olli Maatta and Ben Lovejoy for more. Maatta only played in 20 games last season, coming up with nine points. He’s got great hockey instincts and can skate well in all three zones without making mistakes, plus he can put up big minutes. Lovejoy returned to the Penguins after a stint in Anaheim and had two points in five post-season games.
Rob Scuderi is 36 years of age and he can still go, no question about it. But his production is on the decline, with just 10 points in 81 games last season. He averaged 19:08 of ice time a game and only fired off 52 shots. Still, his game is that of a defensive defenceman and he likes to keep it simple. Scuderi is a shot-blocker and a penalty killer.
Marc-Andre Fleury continues to play quality hockey for the Penguins. He went 34-20-9 and was often the reason Pittsburgh won games last season, posting a 2.32 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. In the playoffs, Fleury was even better as the team around him was worse. He posted a .927 save percentage with a 2.12 goals against average in five post-season games.
Fleury will have a pretty big workload for 2015-2016, with Thomas Greiss out as a free agent. That leaves Jeff Zatkoff in the backup position. He saw 37 minutes of ice time last season and allowed a goal. Zatkoff is a resilient netminder who can persevere in tough situations, but the 28-year-old can cough up dangerous rebounds.
The Penguins are hoping that some of their touted defensive prospects will be ready for the big show – and soon. At the top of the list is Derrick Pouliot, who played in 34 games last season. The 21-year-old is a sublime skater and has an aggressive edge that can put him ahead of the game offensively and defensively. Pouliot, drafted by Pittsburgh in 2012, worked with Gary Roberts in the off-season to improve his conditioning.
Goalie Matthew Murray is expected to be about a year away from the NHL, give or take. Drafted in 2012, Murray was the AHL’s 2014-2015 goaltender and rookie of the year. He posted a 1.58 goals against average with a .941 save percentage last season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and set an AHL record with a 304:11 scoreless streak from February 8 to March 8. Not bad.
The Path Ahead
While the defence continues to be an issue for the Penguins, they may have finally found the missing puzzle piece in terms of offence. Relying on Crosby and Malkin to get the job done has proven to come up short as an overall approach, so Kessel’s addition is expected to tilt the balance and give Pittsburgh some depth.
With Fleury in goal and coach Mike Johnston settling in, the Penguins have a lot to like about their 2015-2016 chances. But the thin blueline could prove to be a problem, especially down the stretch, and Pittsburgh could find themselves with another early post-season exit if they don’t find a way to thicken up on the back end.