It’s that time of year again. Penguins Preview.
A Summer of Change
Gm Jim Rutherford must have decided early on this summer that this would be the season he left a mark in Pittsburgh. And while signing players like Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and Sergei Plotnikov may not be what does that. Trading for one of the top goal scorers in the league, Phil Kessel, surely did. On top of that GMJR found a way to trade away Brandon Sutter for what looks to be an upgrade with Nick Bonino as well as a very promising Defensemen in Adam Clendenning.
Some other additions were Tim Erixon, Steve Oleksy, Kevin Porter and David Warsofsky.
While last summer was about Rutherford replacing the coaching staff this summer has surely become about strengthening the team and making his mark.
Players to keep an eye on
Obviously all eyes will be on Phil Kessel early on. A perennial 30 goal scorer who many believe could finally reach 50 goals this season. We know he will be slotted next to Crosby to start the year and we know what he is capable of. Seeing it put into motion is what will intrigue so many.
Sergei Plotnikov a player who bought himself out of a contract in the KHL to specifically make the jump to the NHL and play with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He isn’t a flashy player but he is hard-working and has strong hockey sense. The pre-season has shown us he has good chemistry with Malkin and is strong with the puck. Does this mean he will be a main stay on that line?
2nd round draft pick Daniel Sprong may find himself on a 9 game tryout with the Penguins to start the season. He has been the biggest surprise in training camp and was an absolute steal in the draft. At 18 years old he already appears to be a seasoned veteran in the NHL.
While I fully expect to see him get a 9 game tryout he will be sent back to his former team unless he continues his current play.
What will the Forwards look like?
Since all the moves of the past summer fans have been clamoring at the bit trying to predict what the lines will look like come the start of the season. Is Kunitz still a top six player? Can Dupuis be the player he was before his blood clot incident? Does Kessel fit better with Crosby or Malkin? And is Perron guaranteed a top six spot? Those are just some of the questions many were asking and luckily for us the Pre-season has helped answer many of them.
Sprong, like I stated above, will most likely get a 9 game tryout. Eric Fehr being out due to his surgery over the summer opens up that spot for the young winger to get a taste of the NHL. I predict Dupuis will be eased back into the NHL and with how strong Bennett has been this preseason a line with Bonino, Bennett and Perron could be a scoring threat.
Kunitz, Crosby and Kessel showed immediate chemistry early on in the preseason and will be the go-to line at the start of the season while Plotnikov has proven to be capable of a top six role, however it could just be temporary if he falters or Perron shines.
What will the Defense look like?
The area of the Penguins most people are worried about also has the most depth. It may not be quality depth but it is there. We all know Letang and Maatta are the anchors of this defensive core but unfortunately when you get past them its difficult to see who fits where.
Many expected to see Derrick Pouliot as a full-time NHLer this year but his play in the preseason hasn’t proven he is ready yet. Many wanted to see Rob Scuderi moved, even if it was for a bag of used jock straps, but there obviously wasn’t any takers. So what should we expect to see come Opening Night?
Mike Johnston said a week or so ago that the team expects to carry 8 defenders into the season. The placement of the Defenders could be and probably will be changed around quite a bit early on this year. Johnston and his staff will need to figure out the best fits and right balance.
Unfortunately Derrick Pouliot struggled this preseason otherwise we would have seen him on this roster. I do not expect him to play a full season in WB/S but I also don’t expect to see him in Pittsburgh until the midway point of the year at the earliest.
I don’t think there is any debate that Fleury will be the #1 guy in Pittsburgh this year. But fans were trying to make an argument for young goalie Matt Murray to play the back-up role instead of Zatkoff. While we know that Fleury and Zatkoff will be the two goalies carried to start the season (because Murray was sent back to WB/S on 9/30) I wanted to help explain why, despite Murray’s strong play, he was sent back to the AHL.
Matt Murray, at this point in his career, appears to be a Goalie who will find himself in a starting position within the NHL. At the young age of 21 though he still has a good bit to learn and some ways to go to develop, If the Penguins decided to have him play the back-up role instead of sending him down to WB/S to be a starter his development would be hurt. Not because he cant handle it but because he wouldn’t get nearly as much ice-time as he would as a starter in the AHL. This is an instance where fans need to be patient but also prepared for what could happen in the very near future.
If Murray continues to shine and develop at a steady pace one of two things will happen. Either Matt Murray will be traded (only if Tristan Jarry starts to reach his potential) for assets or Marc-Andre Fleury will be traded to allow Murray to step in his place. So while having a player like Murray in the system is great, the Penguins are doing the right thing in not rushing him and hurting his future.
One final thought on Murray. If Fleury were to go down due to injury this season do not be surprised to see Murray take on the starting role in Pittsburgh at that time.
The Penguins Special teams units will look a bit different this year. the acquisitions of Kessel, Bonino, Fehr and Cullen has surely upgraded a lack luster special teams roster from last season. We should expect to see a Power Play unit that boasts Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kunitz (or Hornqvist) and Letang early on. I look to Cullen for being centering the second unit with Perron, Bennett, Cole and Clendenning.
As for the Penalty kill I see the Penguins going a much different route with this. Bonino and Dupuis will most certainly be counted on the most in this role but do not be surprised to see Malkin, Crosby, Kessel and Hornqvist take more shifts than usual when they are down a man.
The coaching staff has many weapons at their disposal this year and we should see one of the best Special Teams units in the league because of it.
Like many of the Penguins teams of the past this team boasts an incredible strength of offense. a top 9 of Crosby, Kessel, Malkin, Hornqvist, Kunitz, Perron, Plotnikov, Bonino and Bennett makes it one of the deepest and should make any opponent uneasy.
Scoring in the NHL has been in a downward spiral for a few years now and while last year the NHL couldn’t find a player to reach the 100 point plateau its hard to imagine that one of these talented players wont rectify that this season.
With so much invested in the forwards it is no surprise that the defense is weaker than it was even just a year ago. The departures of Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff will be felt for sure. However I refuse to believe that the defense is as bad as many are saying. The team still boasts the likes of Letang and Maatta as well as top young talent in Cole, Dumoulin, Clendenning and Pouliot.
While players like Scuderi and Lovejoy are anything but spectacular their veteran presence and leadership should help steady a young core.
If the Penguins can find the right pairings, stay healthy on the back-end and not over complicate the game the defense could easily become a strength of this team.
Thanks for Reading
– Robert Slavinsky