The PensNation Opening Day Symposium

Photo By: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Photo By: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

As the Penguins enter a new season, these are a few things that are on our minds for 2013-14.

Assuming Tomas Vokoun is out for a lengthy period, what do the Pens need to do to ensure that they stay competitive for the 20+ games that Zatkoff may play?

Andy Hughes: The Penguins’ goaltending situation is obviously an issue. With so much uncertainty regarding Marc-Andre Fleury, it is really difficult to predict what will happen. If Fleury plays well, that’s great. If he does not though, well, that is a major issue since Jeff Zatkoff has no NHL experience. Relying on a backup for 20+ games who does not have much experience could be an issue. Therefore, in order for this experiment to work, the overall team defense will need to improve as the season goes on. Doing that will be very difficult, however, considering that the Penguins lost Matt Cooke. Their third line will have a new identity this season and there are some questions regarding the Penguins’ fourth line too. In addition, the Penguins may be without Kris Letang for several games, which does not help their case. Pittsburgh’s blue line could feature some young defenders such as Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo to begin the season. The Penguins just have to hope that these new faces can learn from veterans such as Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik in order to reach their goal of limiting chances in front of Fleury and Zatkoff.

Nick Richter: Looks like this could be a lengthy absence actually for Tomas Vokoun. I’m sure Jeff Zatkoff could carry the load of being a backup goaltender in the NHL. He’s been buried in two deep goaltending systems. He wasn’t going to crack the LA Kings lineup a couple of seasons ago with Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. He also wasn’t going to crack a Pens lineup that boasted Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. He had decent numbers everywhere he’s been in the AHL and there’s almost nothing left to prove there. It’s a big opportunity for him to learn and grow. A lot of things are also playing in Zatkoff’s favor right now as well. The Penguins should be more defensively sound with Jacques Martin and the addition of Rob Scuderi would put pretty much every goaltender at ease. The post season is really where this could become an issue.

Andi Perelman: I think Zatkoff will be a great goalie for the Pens (this year and in the future). He really impressed me during the preseason. Zatkoff is athletic (side note: his Dad played in the NBA & his uncle was in the NFL), not to mention the fact that he is proving his place on a team with a rich supply of goalie prospects. The Pens need to focus on maintaining a strong defense, regardless of who is in net. That is what will win them games. With Letang on IR, Pens defensemen need to step up and start getting used to each other, fast. Scuds will be a great re-addition to the team, Pittsburgh’s defensemen are solid, but the match ups have to be right for things to work out.

Meesh Shanmugam:
The key to protecting Zatkoff will be completely on the penalty kill. Whether it be through taking less penalties or playing almost perfect hockey on the penalty kill, the Penguins will have to reduce goals allowed in that area specifically. Zatkoff has the skills to handle a backup job and should be fine at even strength with the amount of talent on this team. If the Penguins truly want to shelter him and tilt the ice in his favor, they are going to have to limit how much opposing teams end up with the man advantage.

Casey Johnston: I think that the things the team has done in the offseason to address the defense will have a positive effect on Zatkoff. They’ve brought back Rob Scuderi. They’ve signed Jacques Martin as an assistant coach. They implemented the 1-3-1 system in the neutral zone. While going into a season with an untested backup is not an ideal situation, Zatkoff could actually have it much worse than he does right now. The Penguins have done their part. Now it’s up to Zatkoff to do his.

Ken Will: I don’t think they can change too much. In some ways, it could be a blessing in disguise. There is added pressure on this team to play  responsible on defense when they’re in front of an unproven goaltender. The Penguins need to be extra attentive positioning and establishing lanes as covered by new assistant coach Jacque Martin and players can learn a lot from a type of player like Rob Scuderi, a much needed addition to this team’s blue line. My biggest concern is what this team will do on the penalty kill. With Matt Cooke’s departure, the penalty kill is the x-factor for the Penguins success in the GA column this season more than the goaltending.

Beau Bennett and Jussi Jokinen have both had good training camps. What is your second line for opening night and why?

ANDY: To be honest, I do not think it matters at all because they will both see time there. If I had to pick one for opening night, I would pick Jussi Jokinen to play on the second line. He played well with that line in the preseason and deserves at least a look. If it does not work out, that’s fine. The Penguins have another great option in Bennett to play on the second line. I expected Bennett to just be a sniper when he came up, but he is turning into a good overall player. His physicality has really impressed me and I think he could fit well on the third line for the time being. He will eventually move up though, which will be really fun to watch. It’s not like last year where the Penguins basically gave the job to Eric Tangradi because they did not have many other options. The second line is not even close to being the biggest issue with this team.

NICK: Jussi Jokinen should get the nod. He’s the kind of player that you will get more from by being on the top two lines. Beau Bennett is no slouch and he’ll likely see plenty of time on the top two lines. Bennett has been labeled the winger of the future for this team and there’s no shame in bringing him along slowly, a team like Detroit would likely do the same thing. Let him learn to be a more versatile player by splitting time on both lines. He’ll likely be with the team all season and that’s still a pretty big accomplishment for a second year pro winger in this system.

ANDI: The second line has got to be Neal, Malkin, and Bennett. Bennett deserves it. Hell, he deserved it last year. And yeah, Jokinen got a hat trick in the preseason game with Nealer and Geno, but he doesn’t belong on that line. Bennett is young and he killed it in the preseason; He has seemingly endless potential and will continue to build upon his skills. Bennett is also a long-term solution in a way that Jokinen could never be.

MEESH: Jokinen is my opening night 2nd line winger. Bennett will get the spot eventually, but there isn’t much of a difference between how Bennett plays on the 2nd or 3rd line right now. Jokinen looks drastically different when he’s on the bottom 6 compared to the top 6. He played his way out of Carolina with poor 3rd line performances and disappeared in the playoffs for Pittsburgh when he was on the 4th line. He’s great in skill situations, but the drop off is so big that Jokinen on the 2nd + Bennett on the 3rd > Bennett on the 2nd and Jokinen on the 3rd. Their combined efforts lead me to believe it’s best to have Jokinen starting on the 2nd line. Also, Bennett’s new physical edge should play well in a 3rd line role. He’ll be on the 2nd line in due time.

CASEY: Jussi Jokinen is on my second line. While having either on the second line will help the Penguins, having Jokinen on the third line could actually hurt. It’s simply not to his style of play. Beau Bennett, on the other hand, has shown that he can fit comfortably in with the third line. He started his year off there last season and surprised many with his more-than-adequate defensive play, ending the regular season with only 1.76 goals against per 60 minutes of play. Bennett’s time on Evgeni Malkin’s line will come, but right now the best thing for the team is to have Jokinen in that spot.

KEN (Missed the Wednesday morning on submitting his entry): Jokinen-Malkin-Bennett. Do I win the office poll? If Neal’s injury only keeps him out for a game or two, then I think the spot goes to Jokinen. But the injury keeps him out for a few weeks, then I think Bennett should stick when Neal returns. Of course, if Jokinen is producing at the rate that we’ve seen Dupuis or Kunitz work with Sidney Crosby–then he is the obvious man for the job.

When Jacques Martin was hired as an assistant coach, the neutral zone trap became a hot topic in Pittsburgh. Now the Penguins are using the 1-3-1 in the preseason. Are you worried that such a system could stifle the offense of the Penguins?

ANDY: I am not too worried about it, honestly. I like the fact that the Penguins are trying out different schemes. Dan Bylsma gets blasted a lot for apparently not making adjustments and I think this is one adjustment that could pay off. If anything, this 1-3-1 scheme could keep the opponents guessing. That cannot hurt. Most teams expect the Penguins to go into their usual 1-2-2 system, but that may not be the case every game now. This team will score goals. That is not the issue. Having different options and looks will benefit the Penguins.

NICK: I’m not worried about it at all. Actually, I’m pumped to see the Pens bring a little something different into their bag-of-tricks. One of the things I loved about the 2009 Stanley Cup run was that they had the ability to choke a team out when they were in the lead. I think instilling this strategy into Bylsma’s system will result in ensuring a few more wins – especially in the playoffs. Giving teams different looks throughout the game makes it harder to coach and play against.

ANDI: This is really hard to say. It will probably depend on who the Pens play and what type of system they are running. At the same time, it is hard to imagine anything stifling Sidney Crosby. True story.

MEESH: The system should help the Penguins with their breakout and provide more puck support to get and keep the puck in the offensive zone. The offense may actually improve with a better transition game and more forced turnovers.

CASEY: On the contrary, I think this could potentially open up the offense. I know that when people think of the 1-3-1, boring hockey comes to mind, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve already seen two breakaway goals in the preseason from Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz that probably resulted from teams having less options getting through the neutral zone. It’s not pretty hockey, but it’s effective hockey.

KEN: No. If you watched the team in camp or pre-season then you saw that this isn’t Mrs. Boucher’s 1-3-1. The setup is just as much about the transition game as it is about defense. The Penguins have thrived off of scoring goals on the rush in recent years. Merry Christmas, Pens fans. I think we’ll see even more of that this year.

What does Fleury have to do to regain the confidence of the coaching staff?

ANDY: As weird as this sounds, I do not think he can regain the coaching staff’s confidence until the playoffs. They have seen what he can do in the regular season. He has typically played well during the regular season and he should again this year. However, without Tomas Vokoun now, Fleury has some more pressure on him, which could be an early test for the goaltender. Regardless of how he plays during the regular season, the postseason will be Fleury’s real test and could ultimately decide whether he stays with the organization or not.

NICK: There are not many goalies in the NHL as athletic as Flower but in the past it seems as if he was trying to be more than he should be. Fleury needs to get back to the fundamentals and simplify his game. He cannot afford to over think things. Simply come ready and focused and build his, his teammates’ and his coaches’ confidence one period at a time.

ANDI: Fleury has to have confidence in himself. If Fleury is confident in his abilities, it will absolutely show in his play. As Wayne Gretzky once said, “Ninety percent of hockey is mental and the other half is physical”. Fleury needs to stay on his mental game and also maintain his health. If he doesn’t worry about his starting position, he will be set. Fleury is a great goalie and can bounce back.

MEESH: Win. It’s not about stats with Fleury, it’s about whether he gives the team a chance to win. That means no back-breaking goals in key situations. It’s partly on the team and it’s partly on him, but in the end, the staff will just care about whether the team has a chance to win or not. Fleury can’t hinder that and keep his starting spot.

CASEY: Fleury needs to forget about last season’s playoffs (and the three other playoffs before that) and come into this season ready to reclaim his starting job. With Tomas Vokoun on the shelf and Jeff Zatkoff backing him up, he really doesn’t have a choice. Fleury’s gained a reputation, fair or not, as a headcase. It’s time for him to show that he’s a veteran. Have you noticed that I’ve mentioned very little about his actual play? While Fleury can stand to improve in some areas like angles and rebound control, I think most of the answer to Fleury’s success lies between his ears. Aside from winning, the best thing Fleury can do to regain the coaching staff’s confidence is to show that he understands that.

KEN: He needs to win in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that will be the only thing that puts him back into the good graces of the organization and the fanbase. In the short-term, he has a big test in front of him here. He and Zatkoff need to work well as a tandem in the next few months. If Fleury can show that he’s prepared to the handle the responsibility of mentoring a fresh netminder while managing his own game, then the confidence will return for the coaching staff (and more importantly–for Fleury!)