Thinking Out Loud: Pens Season is Upon Us

thinkingoutloud

By: Meesh Shanmugam

The last time the Penguins played a meaningful game, we were all treated to a frustrating, yet predictable 2-1 loss in a Game 7 at home to the Rangers.

Dan Bylsma’s team blew another series with home-ice advantage. Sidney Crosby struggled. Martin St. Louis was an inspiration to everyone, Pittsburgh not included.

A lot has changed since then.

First, Ray Shero was fired, along with Dan Bylsma…no wait, not with Dan Bylsma. Dan Bylsma kept his job. But Ray Shero was definitely fired (Tweetcap).

The GM search took a couple of weeks. There were a few days of joking about Jim Rutherford being the next GM, then the insanity peaked at rumors of Pierre McGuire getting the job. Then…Jim Rutherford actually did become the next GM (Tweetcap). Oh, and Bylsma was actually fired this time (“a été congédié”, if you will).

Next up was the coaching search. While the GM search was odd, the coaching search was downright absurd as it filtered through the media.

After a dozen rumored candidates, the Pens hired Bill Peters….no wait, he went to Carolina. Then they hired Willie Desjardins…no, wait, he went to Vancouver. Then, they started the coaching search again. Whoops.

Finally, the team landed Mike Johnston (Tweetcap).

WE HAVEN’T EVEN HIT THE DRAFT YET.

Once we got to the draft, we said bye to a friendly, okay, maybe not-so-friendly face. James Neal was off to Nashville.

The return wasn't so bad. (Credit: Getty Images)

The return wasn’t so bad. (Credit: Getty Images)

The rest of the draft moved along quietly with the Penguins getting a likely-steal in Kasperi Kapanen. Then it was time for free agency and quite a few changes.

On the first day alone, the Penguins said goodbye to Jokinen, Glass, Vitale, Niskanen, long-tenured Brooks Orpik, and Engelland. Can you explain that, Bob McKenzie?

Jim Rutherford did work though, landing Ehrhoff, Greiss, Comeau, and Downie, while also keeping Goc. Everyone received one year deals. Though it was forced in many ways, the Penguins quietly found themselves with a more efficient roster, more flexibility, and did it with a minimal cost.

The massive turnover was done. The key part of the offseason was done. All that was left was to get weird.

Claude Giroux prompted one of the best paragraphs in blogger history.

“This could go on forever. Obviously Giroux will want to quickly put this behind him, but you can’t help but wonder if this will be in the rear of his mind next season. On the backside of it all, other players around the league certainly won’t let him forget about it once we get past the hump of the offseason. Giroux is the Flyers captain and their moneymaker. For him to put his morals in the caboose and publicly act like an ass, it’s really inexcusable. It’s one thing to rump around on Canada Day, it’s another to harass an officer just because you think you can. Can. Giroux’s reputation may currently be in the pooper, but, the backdoor is still open for this story to change as more details continue to be pulled from the trunk.” – Rich Miller

Kris Letang cut his hair, changing the world forever.

Sidney Crosby was then FAKE arrested.

Finally, the offseason ended on a good note. The return of an old, black and gold friend.

Now here we are, the day before the Pens open the 2014-15 season at home against Anaheim.

A lot has changed…seriously, a lot. The national media doesn’t know how to read this team, leading to predictions ranging from runaway winners of the Metro to third-place finishes.

Honestly, I don’t think any of us truly knows how to read this team either with a coach we’ve never seen before and quite a different roster.

And honestly, I love every second of it. Everything is fresh, new, and exciting. A new system to watch, new players to figure out, a renewed sense of hope that this core group will find their way to a second Stanley Cup within their “window”.

Is this team worse than last season? Probably. There is a drop in top-end talent.
Is this team better than last season? Probably. Their depth is far superior to what it was.
What does it combine to mean? Who knows. We’ll find out over the course of the next 9 months, when hopefully we all have a Stanley Cup baby together (and we won’t buckle it up this time, either).

Now that I have finished my excessively long introduction, it’s time for some quick thoughts about each player as we enter the season. (Because the roster isn’t quite *set* yet, I’m going to use the roster that Mike Colligan so eloquently explained in his most recent post.)

Forwards

Evgeni Malkin – My stance on Geno is simple: forget everything you read and just watch the all-world talent play. Malkin loves hockey. Malkin loves scoring. Malkin loves winning. He will take care of all of it. There will be bad penalties and bad turnovers, but he will single-handedly win games to make up for it.

Sidney Crosby – You know what you’re getting with the reigning MVP. I will forever be concerned about his injury potential because of his “most talented grinder in the world” style, but the best player in the world is still the best player in the world.

You can't go wrong betting on this guy. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

You can’t go wrong betting on this guy. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

Patric Hornqvist – Hornqvist is set for a career year with Crosby and Malkin to work with. His footwork around the crease is phenomenal, as is his ability to retrieve pucks near the net. I was quite surprised to see how strong he was defensively in his preseason games too. The Penguins may have picked up a more complete player than any of us realized at first.

Chris Kunitz – It’s safe to expect Kunitz to be attached to Crosby’s hip, but I’m betting on his production dropping. Hornqvist fits the role in front of the net better on the powerplay and, well, aging is a thing. Whether logical or not, Kunitz is one guy I’m watching for a drop-off.

Pascal Dupuis – Dupuis skated fairly well in the preseason and should be a big help on the PK as usual. He won’t start off on the top line, but I have a feeling that will be a fluid situation. In an ideal world, the Penguins will add another top-six winger at some point and bump Dupuis down, but I’m confident he’ll be adequate in his usual roles.

Brandon Sutter – Sutter is a constant lightning rod for criticism with both his salary and role. Playing with Malkin early on *should* boost his performance, but I don’t see him as a player who will change very much at this point. I expect the same as usual from him…which is good to some people and horrible to others.

Can he earn your love this year? (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Can he earn your love this year? (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Nick Spaling – I think Spaling will surprise some people with his intelligence and dependable play. I was impressed with him (in a Sutter-like way) during the preseason, which unfortunately adds to the redundancy of Sutter/Spaling/Goc. His ability to play comfortably on the wings will be important on a team that seems to always struggle with injuries though.

Marcel Goc – Goc never got a fair look last season due to his ankle injury and the general mess of linemates he had. He’ll be working with better talent this year and he gets the same fresh start as everyone else. Expect him to thrive compared to what you may have seen last season.

Steve Downie – 80% of the crazy in this lineup will come from Steve Downie. He’s another guy that can play in front of the net and he will likely agitate everyone in the Metro Division at some point this season. The biggest question about him will be if or when he goes overboard. That line in the sand might determine if he is worth the signing or not by itself.

Beau Bennett – Bennett had a fantastic preseason before he got hurt…again. The kid has gone through a rough string of bad luck, but it’s somewhat nice to see a non-wrist injury. If Bennett can find a way to stay healthy this season, Mike Johnston’s system will highlight his creativity very well. Just. Stay. Healthy.

Blake Comeau – Comeau brings a little bit of crazy with him and a lot of aggressiveness. He’s a quick skater who will hit everyone and go a little overboard in battling for the puck (see: 3 penalties in one game this preseason). As long as he can tone that down, he should do well with forechecking, frustrating opponents, and forcing turnovers.

Craig Adams – Everyone hates Craig Adams. I am going to spin his existence into a potential positive though. To me, Adams is the perfect 13th forward. He’s the forward I don’t care about sitting in the press box night after night. I would prefer younger players don’t waste their existence by not playing, so Adams saves them from that fate. In my ideal world, that is his role all season with a game here and there as injuries require.

How angry does this man make you?. (Jay LaPrete/AP Photo)

How angry does this man make you?. (Jay LaPrete/AP Photo)

Zach Sill – Sill is a frustrating case. He knows what to do, knows where to be, and is quick/smart about it. However, his puck-handling is subpar and costs him most opportunities that he earns (in the form of turnovers). In the end, that isn’t worth much. That puts him a small fraction higher than Craig Adams on my list of guys to play.

Andrew Ebbett – Ebbett has been a journeyman NHLer who fits well in the fringe role of a 4th line forward who might go back and forth between Pittsburgh and WBS several times this year. I trust him in that role since he can handle himself defensively and isn’t a complete mess on offense. He may not add much, but he won’t make many mistakes either.

Kasperi Kapanen – Though Kapanen is still on the NHL roster while I write this, he was in Finland visiting family yesterday and it has been suggested by many that he will remain there. Kapanen showed flashes of NHL readiness, but also looked like he needed to bulk up and couldn’t read the speed of the game very well at times. Those are things that one would expect out of a rookie. If he does indeed remain in Finland, I will have no arguments against it. He’ll have his time soon enough.

The status of the first-round pick is still in flux.

The status of the first-round pick is still in flux.

Oskar Sundqvist – Sundqvist is a guy who probably earned a roster spot but didn’t get one for a variety of factors. The biggest factor to me is roster flexibility. While Craig Adams is the perfect press box guy, Sundqvist is the opposite of it. With how the roster is currently built, keeping Sundqvist in Pittsburgh (there is no applicable 9-game tryout for his contract) would probably leave him in the 4th line/healthy scratch gray area depending on team health and would hurt his development. Thus, I’m content with letting the kid get another solid year of experience instead.

Defensemen

Kris Letang – I have very high hopes for Letang, which is a phrase I don’t believe I have ever said. His whirlwind of a year last year forced him to grow up in several ways. Additionally, Johnston’s system should allow Letang to use his skating ability better instead of feeling pressured to look for certain options. He looked great with Ehrhoff in the preseason and the forwards did a wonderful job of rotating with defensemen to cover the points, which should also help out his offensive talents. For the first time ever, I am optimistic about Kris Letang.

Paul Martin – It will be interesting to see if Martin stays in Pittsburgh for the entire year with their depth at defense and need at forward. Entering the final year of his contract, rumors have been swirling that he might not want to stay. Beyond that, the Penguins don’t necessarily need him to stay. Martin is expected to play with Maatta, which will form a very steady and talented pairing. The only question surrounding Martin might be his future.

Christian Ehrhoff – There is a lot of hype surrounding Ehrhoff (possibly too much) entering this season. He is a solid Niskanen-replacement with a low, hard shot and the ability to move with the puck comfortably. His communication with Letang in the preseason was outstanding in almost all situations. Despite all of the hype, he does appear prone to defensive lapses occasionally. If he can form a settled pairing with Letang though, all will be forgiven.

Was this the best acquisition of the offseason? (Credit: Getty Images)

Was this the best acquisition of the offseason? (Credit: Getty Images)

Rob Scuderi – Everyone hates Scuderi at this point. My advice: view him as a sunk cost. Price tag aside, I think Scuderi could be a serviceable third pairing defenseman for the time-being. I don’t think he’ll have a “bounce-back” year in comparison to what everyone expected from him, but he will probably improve slightly over what he was at the end of last season. If the entire defense is healthy, he fits into my ideal Craig Adams role of hang out in the press box while the kids play. Unlike Adams, whose salary isn’t an issue, Scuderi’s salary might play into decisions that it shouldn’t be a part of though.

Simon Despres – Is this the year that we finally see Despres take a huge step forward now that he is away from the coaching staff that seemed to hate him? He won’t receive much help as he slots onto the 3rd pairing with Scuderi, but the opportunity is there to impress a new coaching staff. The better he plays early on, the quicker he might pave the way for a Martin trade.

Olli Maatta – Will Maatta fall into the sophomore slump category? I don’t believe he will. Will people expect too much out of him? I have a bad feeling they will. Maatta wowed fans with impressively steady play for a 19-year-old rookie. Now that the youth/rookie factor has worn off (20-year-old just doesn’t seem as impressive), it will be interesting to see how he is judged overall. I expect Maatta to bring the same level of play as he did last season, but the people will probably want more.

Robert Bortuzzo – Bortuzzo brings the rest of the crazy on this team with big hits (sometimes a little irresponsible) and gritty play that most of the defense doesn’t engage in. He is *capable* with the puck and seems to know when to jump into the offensive play too. When he returns from injury, my biggest concerns with him will be abandoning his position to make a hit and ill-timed fights. Overall though, he should be a solid 3rd pairing guy.

Taylor Chorney – Throw Chorney in the Andrew Ebbett/closer to Craig Adams category for me. He’s not a bad guy to sit in the press box and can play in a pinch as he probably goes back and forth between WBS and Pittsburgh frequently. He had a great start to the preseason but probably showed his true colors closer to the end with several mistakes. Yeah, Ebbett/Adams for the defense.

Scott Harrington/Brian Dumoulin/Philip Samuelssson – All of these guys will eventually get their turns (or perhaps one will get traded eventually) as injuries occur through the season. All of them seem pretty close to NHL-ready, if they aren’t there already. It’s just a matter of patience for this group.

Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury – Is this Fleury’s final season in Pittsburgh? That will probably be the season-long storyline for him, especially with Greiss pushing for starts. Johnston said he expects Fleury to start around 60 games, and we all generally know what to expect. The playoffs will be where his future is determined. Either way, it will have to be a cheaper future if he wants to stay.

Fleury looked great this preseason. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

Fleury looked great this preseason. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

Thomas Greiss – Greiss is one of the higher-caliber backups we have seen and should happily remind you of the Vokoun days (maybe not-so-happily for Fleury). He is a quality backup who knows he has a chance to both push Fleury and essentially take a one-year tryout for next year’s starting position. If Fleury falters or gets hurt, the Pens should feel quite comfortable with Greiss to help out.

And with that, welcome back hockey, welcome back Pens fans, and welcome to the 2014-15 season!

Thanks for reading!!