Offseason Game Plan: Pittsburgh Penguins
Thoughout the summer, I have been taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
UFA: Brent Johnson, Casey Pierro-Zabotel, Marc Cheverie
RFA: Eric Tangradi
Rostered players signed for next season: 23
Available cap space: $3.55M
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of 13 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. Of the forwards, EvgeniMalkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Cooke carry no-trade clauses, and Steve MacIntyre is the only forward to have a two-way contract. On defense, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are the only two with no-trade clauses while Brian Strait has the lone two-way contract. Both goaltenders – Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun – also carry no-trade clauses.
At forward, Pittsburgh’s top-six should include (if healthy) Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Kunitz, combined with two of Brandon Sutter, Pascal Dupuis, or Tyler Kennedy. If they choose, Pittsburgh can keep last season’s top line of Kunitz-Malkin-Neal intact, which would leave Crosby skating with the other two. This forward cropwill take a hit with the departure of Jordan Staal and Steve Sullivan, but it would give Kennedy an opportunity to prove he can consistently elevate his game to top-six performance. This leaves the bottom-six to consist of guys like Cooke, Tanner Glass, Craig Adams, MacIntyre, Dustin Jeffrey, and Joe Vitale.
The Penguins’ offense is not as strong as last year, which will have the team relying on Malkin and Crosby even more heavily, somewhat of a recurring theme the past few years. While Pittsburgh has finally added an elite winger in Neal, the gap between Neal and players like Kunitz, Dupuis, and Kennedy is quite large. As of now, the Penguins’ offense will consist of two scoring lines led by three stars and two checking lines with the occasional offensive contributions. Guys like Vitale, Jeffrey, and Tangradi (if signed) could fill out a fairly productive third line, but none of them carry extensive NHL experience, making them less reliable options.
In terms of prospects ready to make the jump up to an NHL spot, the Penguins have Benn Ferreiro, Beau Bennett, and Tom Kühnhackl. Of the three of them, Ferriero comes with the most experience, splitting time with in the NHL and AHL each of the last three seasons in the San Jose system. Most recently, Ferriero potted seven goals in 35 games, while averaging only 12 minutes of ice time per game. In his limited exposure, he skated primarily with players such as Logan Couture, RyaneClowe, and Patrick Marleau, which may give him an easier transition not only into NHL action, but skating in the top-six withMalkin or Crosby. Both Bennett and Kühnhackl will be entering their first season of professional hockey, so it is doubtful that they are able to stick at the NHL level, but they might be in line for a cup of coffee. Bennett is a former first-round selection who has left the University of Denver after two seasons to turn pro, and he will be eager to make an impact. Kühnhackl is a former fourth-round pick who took the OHL route, but his performance declined a bit last year. One thing to note is that Wilkes-Barre’s top five scorers from last season are no longer with the organization(Ben Street, Bryan Lerg, Colin McDonald, Geoff Walker, and Jason Williams), and this huge shift in organizational talent will open the door for new faces to lead the way.
On defense, Pittsburgh’s top-four should consist of Kris Letang, Martin, Matt Niskanen, and Orpik. That leaves the bottom pairing to be filled by Strait, DerykEngelland, and Ben Lovejoy. ZybnekMichalek’s departure opens the door for Niskanen to make a big jump as Michalek was eating up an average of 21:39 minutes of ice time per game and Niskanen was left with only an average of 17:56. Despite the limited ice time, Niskanen managed three points in four playoff games, which also helped to earn him a new two-year extension. Letang continues to be top fantasy defenseman for Pittsburgh, but with Martin not quite living up to expectations from an offensive standpoint, Niskanen is the next best on the depth chart.
In terms of prospects ready to make the jump, the Penguins have Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, and Joe Morrow. Despres has seen NHL action, dressing for 18 games last season and impressing in more than a few of them. With the relatively thin talent on the NHL roster, there is a good chance that Despres will be able to challenge for a top-four spot immediately. Dumoulin came to Pittsburgh in the Jordan Staal trade and is a 6-4, 210 lb. force entering his first professional season after spending three years in the Boston College program. While Dumoulin has been praised for his defensive awareness, he may have underrated offensive abilities, evidenced by his team-leading seven goals and 28 points from the blue line last year. Morrow is entering his first professional season as well after being drafted in the first round just a year ago. He is coming off a year where he led Portland Winterhawks defensemen with 64 points in 62 games and 17 points in 22 playoff games, as the Winterhawks fell to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL Finals. While the future is bright for Dumoulin and Morrow, they are both expected to spend at least one full year in the AHL before making an impact, seeing occasional call ups.
In goal, Pittsburgh has Fleury under contract for the next three seasons and Vokoun for the next two. Fleury has carried the reputation as being the undisputed top dog over the past few years, but his performance in the playoffs last year left the team wondering. GM Ray Shero’s way of addressing this was to add Vokoun, a goaltender who just two years ago was regarded as one of the top fantasy goaltenders in the league due to his ability to maintain a high save percentage when seeing 40 or more shots against. Although he is already 36 years old, Vokoun has proven that he can consistently be relied upon to play 50-60 games, and post around a 2.50 GAA and .915-.920 save percentage. It is unlikely that Vokoun starts 50-60 games this season, but his veteran leadership might be able to develop Fleury into a more consistent goaltender in the long run. If for some reason Fleury is injured or loses the starting role (still highly unlikely), Vokoun will be more than capable of filling in for the duration of the year.
In terms of prospects ready to step up, the Penguins recently added former Los Angeles prospect Jeff Zatkoff, who was splitting time with Martin Jones last year, but has proven to be a durable, reliable prospect. Last year, Zatkoffposted a 2.49 GAA and .920 save percentage, good enough to land him a spot in the AHL All Star game. The Penguins also have Brad Thiessen in the mix, who had a bit of a rocky season in 2011-12, but did claim the AHL Goalie of the Year award in 2010-11. With these two in Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh’s goaltending depth is extremely secure.
Biggest holes to fill:Top-four defenseman and above-average winger.
Priorities:Pittsburgh’s top priority should be to add a talented defenseman with experience. Letang has faced injuries in the past, so if he were to go down for an extended period of time, the depth is simply not strong enough to fill the void. They have a good mix of prospects on defense, but they will need time to develop into reliable NHL assets. In the meantime, the depth could use an upgrade. Admittedly, Pittsburgh pushed hard to land Ryan Suter, but now they will need to move on to plan B.The second priority should be adding another top-six winger. While these are areas for improvement, GM Shero has proven to be a savvy GM who may simply be waiting for the certainty of the CBA to materialize before making any big additions. After the last lockout was resolved, one of Shero’s first moves was to sign Sergei Gonchar, the NHL’s reigning top scoring defenseman at the time.
Overall the Penguins’ offense took a hit in the talent department, which is a cause for concern for the superstars like Malkin, Crosby, and Neal, as opposing defenders will have less talent to shut down, allowing them to focus more attention on fewer players. While the stars are still worth owning, they might see a slight dip in overall production unless more talent is brought in. On defense, the crop is getting even thinner, but that is a less of a concern with the recently stabilized goaltending tandem of Fleury and Vokoun. From a fantasy perspective though, both Fleury and Vokoun will likely see a decrease in value as neither have a firm grasp on a starting role any longer.
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