Pens May Not Be As Good But Still Very Good
When a team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals loses 7 key contributors to that team, many expect a decline.
Well for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the decline may not be very steep at all.
At first glance, when you see all the players who left, it is very easy to hypothesize that the team has nowhere else to go but down.
Gone is Ryan Malone, the big power forward who showed a ton of heart and grit in the playoffs. Gone is Marian Hossa, the 3rd leading scorer in the spring and a tremendous two way threat not easily replaceable. Gone as well are players like the gritty Gary Roberts who was a heart and soul player for them, checkers Adam Hall and Jarko Ruutu, tough guy Georges Laraque and backup goalie Ty Conklin who saved the Pens mid year when Marc Andre Fleury was out with injury.
However, the essence of the team still remains and all the key parts this team is built around are still here and very poised to make another long playoff run.
The team still has its 3 headed monster up the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Jordan Staal. They have a deep defence led by Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney and they have an emerging star in goal in Fleury. To write them off is premature.
GM Ray Shero has done a very good job at plugging the holes left this summer and he managed to keep arguably the team’s most important free agent Brooks Orpik. Miro Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko are proven skilled NHLers who will add depth on the wing while Eric Godard and Matt Cooke will help replenish some of the grit and toughness lost. Were these players the best available? Are they a marked improvement over the players who left? Probably not. But kudos to Shero for not breaking the bank, overspending, yet maintaining the team’s core.
Pretty much this will be the team Michel Therrien will have to work with to get the Pens to the next level. One thing Therrien has managed to do is to get his team, no matter who is in the lineup, to play strong defensively. It has made Fleury’s job easier in goal. It has helped a great deal having a veteran, talented and experienced defence. But players like Crosby, Staal, the younger players have given premium effort to the defensive side of the game. Therrien has implemented a solid system and the players are buying into it. Thats a tribute to sound coaching.
To get back to the finals, the team just might have enough talent to return. But do not bet against Shero from making an aggressive pitch for a top forward by the trade deadline. While his time in Pittsburgh was limited, Hossa had an impact. Its unlikely Shero will shy away from moving young assets again if he feels that he can get a player of Hossa’s calibre and productiivity. They did lose quite a bit of grit and toughness so that may be something Shero addresses as well. Like take Roberts for example. He didnt play in all the team’s playoff games, but his first shift in the playoffs set the tone and got the Pens rolling all the way to the Finals. Look for Shero to try and add someone with that kind of experience and leadership.
C: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Beech
RW: Miro Satan, Petr Sykora, Matt Cooke, Eric Godard
LW: Pascal Dupuis, Ruslan Fedotenko, Tyler Kennedy, Maxime Talbot
There is no stronger 1-2 punch up the middle that Crosby and Malkin. Malkin came into his own after Crosby got hurt and took his game to the next level. He was a handful to contain and having the both of them in the lineup causes fits for opponents checking them. Though Malkin struggled some for parts of the playoffs, the experience gained should push him to reach towards yet another level of excellence. Crosby is arguably the world’s best player. The vote is probably split between him and Alex Ovechkin. Crosby did show he could take his game to a new level in the playoffs and proved to be a horse when it mattered most. He will now need to go even further to take his Pens to championship status. There is probably no better playmaker in the game today and he is probably the most imaginative and creative player around.
The team is hopeful Satan, Sykora and Fedotenko provide some solid support scoring for their stars. It might be a reach to expect Satan to be that 40 goal man he once was, but playing along side any one of the Pens top centres could turn his career around. Fedotenko was a key cog in the Lightning’s championship from 2004 and his playoff experience will be invaluable. The Pens are hopeful he can replace some of the size and scoring ability lost with Malone gone.
The addition of Cooke could be a quiet coup for Shero. He is an agitator and solid penalty killer who could really add some sandpaper to the Pens. With players like Talbot, Godard, Dupuis, Kennedy, the team has a decent group of blue collar, hard working individuals that are willing to do the little things that make up a successful team. Their leader in that regard is young Staal. Staal has grasped with open arms the checking line centre role and emerged in the playoffs as a great all purpose player. He can play the PP, he can score, he can check, he is a handful to contain with his size, he is starting to become a great faceoff man and he showed a knack for making big plays at key times. While he could play on other team’s top lines for like half the league, he has embraced filling in this role with the Pens and will be a major piece of their puzzle in their drive for the Stanley Cup.
D: Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik, Ryan Whitney, Kris Letang, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, Darryl Sydor
The Pens have accumulated a significant amount of depth on defence and they know as well as anyone that they will need it. You know your defence is strong when a veteran and proven winner like Sydor is 9th on the depth chart. They have a ton of offensive skill with Gonchar, Whitney and Letang leading the way. Gonchar has also become a defensive stalwart adding to his tremendous offensive game that includes sound playmaking and a major league point shot. Whitney doesnt produce as much due to not being on the top PP unit, but he is an invaluable contributor who is tremendous at joining the rush. Letang is slowly but surely getting the hang of the pro game and while he is not big, he is very game and very willing to compete. His offence and skating are why he is here and if his defensive game continues to get better, he could be a big impact player. Players like Eaton, Gill and Scuderi know their role and that is to play a safe sound defensive game. Gill added a big need for size on defence, and while he is slow, he hardly looks that way with all the speed and skill the Pens have. The Pens kept the right free agent when they reupped Orpik long term. While he isnt a point getter, he can play mean and tough and brings those intangibles to a team that lost quite a bit of it in the off-season. That dominant shift he had in the finals was just a taste of the kind of impact he can have. All teams need this kind of character.
G: Marc Andre Fleury, Dany Sabourin
If there was any question about Fleury’s ability to be an elite goalie, he answered them in the playoffs. While it is still necessary to see if he can consistently be a top goalie over the next few years, the Pens certainly know now he is capable of playing at a top level. Fleury was terrific in the playoffs and if he can carry over that momentum into this year, that will be music to coach Therrien’s ears. So long as Fleury can keep those soft goals at a minimum and make the big saves in front of his stingy defence, the Pens will be a difficult team to beat. Therrien will need to ensure though that Fleury does not get worn down. The injury was a bit of a blessing as he was fairly fresh for the playoffs. Without Conklin, Sabourin will need to play well when he gets his chance as the Pens need
a reliable backup to take some pressure off Fleury.
F: Aaron Boogaard, Connor James, Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Minard, Bill Thomas, Adam Henrich
D: TJ Kemp, Mark Ardelan, Paul Bissonette, Derek Engelland, Danny Richmond
G: David Brown
F: Jonathan Filewich, Ryan Stone, Kevan Veilleux, Joe Vitale, Johannes Salmonsson, Luca Caputi, Nathan Moon
D: Brian Strait, Alex Goligoski, Alex Grant, Carl Sneep
G: John Curry
The Pens prospect ranks have been thinned out thanks to the team’s best players being with the main squad right now plus the Hossa trade which cost them top prospect Angelo Esposito and a 1st round pick. However they are not without some decent young talent. Filewich is a big body who has potential as a 4th line grinder. He lost a bit of his scoring touch this year and needs it back if he wants to be something more. Caputi had no trouble scoring, being among the leaders in the OHL. Veilleux is another big body the team has up the middle and if he can learn to use his size well, he should be an asset on the 3rd or 4th line. Stone is a checker and may make the team because he can fill that role.
Goligoski could probably start playing regularly in the NHL if there weren’t so many blueliners with the team. If he continues to develop well, he could very well allow the Pens to move a veteran Dman.
While Fleury is young enough to be around for the next decade, thus lessening the need for a top flight goalie prospect, the Pens may have found a future netminder in Curry who was on the all rookie team in the AHL and had a terrific playoff helping the farm team to the final. They will need this depth as they may need their next Conklin to perhaps step in and carry the parent team if Fleury gets hurt again.
The Pens didn’t pick until round 4 in the draft but picked up a solid prospect in Nathan Moon who has shown some offensive ability in the OHL.
Are the Pens as good as the team that went to the finals last year? On paper, they are not. The departures were significant enough to be damaging to any team. However, do the Pens have the capability to get back to that level this season? Absolutely. Any team with two elite players like Malkin and Crosby will always have some success. The fact is the dynamic duo is surrounded by a pretty good supporting cast still and they have good goaltending, good coaching and a manager willing to do what it takes to win. The pieces are still in place for another long playoff run. It will now be up to the young guns to take their games to the next level so they can lead their team to glory.