Metropolitan Division Season Preview: The Pittsburgh Penguins

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May 13, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma (left) congratulates New York Rangers center Brian Boyle (22) after the Rangers defeated the Penguins 2-1 in game seven of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Rangers won the game 2-1 and took the series 4 games to 3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason Moves: After that game seven loss, it was only a matter of time before major changes took place. Most expected Bylsma to get the axe, which he did only after the Pens kept him employed for several weeks while other teams filled their vacancies. Instead, Shero was fired first while Bylsma twisted in the wind. Mario Lemieux and his ownership team replaced them with former Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and plucked a relatively unknown candidate in Mike Johnston out of the WHL to take over as head coach weeks later. It was evident that Bylsma’s message had grown stale, with wild reports surfacing mere hours after the game seven loss that he had lost Crosby and the rest of the room.

Shero, meanwhile, was criticized for failing to provide Crosby and Malkin with the requisite support to push them through to the later rounds of the playoffs (the Rob Scuderi signing may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back). It seemed like a harsh sentence for the management duo, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2008-2009 and three first-place finishes since in the regular season.

However, the last five years had produced just one appearance beyond the second round of the playoffs, the 2012-2013 conference finals which saw the Pens get swept by the Bruins. As we’ve seen in Washington, a management team can only retain the respect of the room for so long if repeated playoff failures persist.

It’s unclear how Johnston’s system will look, but early indications are that Johnston will focus on breakouts in which the puck carrier is supported by more skaters, meaning Bylsma’s stretch pass breakout scheme is likely a thing of the past. In the locker room, new Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet figures to be a fiery and outspoken presence, in stark contrast to the steely, reserved coaching styles of Bylsma and Assistant Tony Granato.

Rutherford has already made his presence known with a busy offseason of roster moves. On the blue line, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik followed former Assistant Coach Todd Rierden to D.C. and joined the Caps. Both were among the top four defensemen on the team in terms of ice time per game. In a shrewd move, Rutherford scooped up Christian Erhoff, the former Buffalo Sabres stalwart who’s capable of handling top-pair minutes on a cheap one-year deal. The Penguins will lean heavily on Erhoff to play top-four minutes along with Paul Martin and Kris Letang. Those three along with Maatta (when he returns from injury) will anchor the top four with some combination of Scuderi, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Dumoulin filling out the rest of the defense.

Among the forward ranks, Rutherford surprised the hockey world by trading James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. This trade is hard to figure out from Pittsburgh perspective, but the most plausible explanation is that it’s part of an effort to shakeup the locker room culture, because it doesn’t make a ton of sense when looking purely at on-ice production. Hornqvist is a nice two-way player who can score 20-25 goals a year, but Neal has the 10th most goals scored in the NHL since 2010-2011 and is still only 26 years old.

Neal, though, was rumored to be a not-so-great locker presence and was also criticized for taking unnecessary and undisciplined penalties. The Penguins are hoping the trade helps address what seemed to have become a toxic culture in Pittsburgh last year, while Hornvist should be a capable top-six wing especially alongside Malkin. In theory, Spaling represents an upgrade to their bottom six group of forwards which failed to take the pressure off the big guns and also wasn’t great in the grit and sandpaper department.

They also added Steve Downie and Blake Comeau as bottom six depth. If Downie can reclaim his Tampa Bay form, they may have a steal. Question marks still persist, though, regarding whether a third line with Spaling and Downie can relieve the pressure off of the top two lines as neither were great possession players last year even in sheltered roles.

Drafted Players: The standout from the 2014 draft class is Kasperi Kapanen, who is already ranked as the second best Pens’ prospect on Hockey’s Future. The 18-year old is considered a highly skilled forward and a good value pick at #22 overall. He’ll compete for a forward spot in training camp, especially if Dupuis and Beau Bennett are still not 100% recovered from their injuries.

Prospects Ready to Contribute in 2014-2015: Bennett and Defenseman Derrick Pouliot round out the top three prospects along with Kapanen,  although Bennett has already played significant minutes in the NHL. Pouliot, a puck-moving defenseman capable of quarterbacking the power play, is full of potential. He had rotator cuff surgery in May so he’ll start the season on the IR. It’s most likely that he’ll spend the season in the AHL but there’s an outside chance that he’ll get a look at the NHL level.

Bennett is just 22 years old and played 21 and 26 games respectively with Penguins each of the last two seasons. He has top-six forward potential and is a strong candidate to play on Malkin’s wing on the second line. The biggest concern with Bennett is injuries. He has had three wrist surgeries in four years including one this offseason after he tried to fight through it during the Pens’ playoff run.

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