The Pittsburgh Penguins went into the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the teams to beat, and they were, bounced in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Penguins team that has as much talent as any team in the league, when healthy, so they have to keep pushing ahead for another championship run.
The Penguins have reached the playoffs in six straight seasons and their 108 points last season was their most since 1992-1993. With Sidney Crosby healthy down the stretch and into the playoffs, it looked like the Penguins were set, but a competitive series against Philadelphia, coupled with disastrous goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, ended the Penguins' season early.
Pittsburgh acted quickly to address the goaltending issue, acquiring free-agent-to-be Tomas Vokoun from Washington, then signing him to a new contract, ostensibly to be Fleury's backup.
The rest of Pittsburgh's core is largely intact for next season, though there could be some difficult business decisions this summer. Crosby and Jordan Staal will be going into the final year of their respective contracts next season, which could mean different things for both players.
In Crosby's case, he's a force to be reckoned with when healthy and he proved it again last season when he finally returned to the lineup. The 24-year-old is set for a contract extension but, because of his concussion troubles over the last couple seasons, it could be a more challenging negotiation than his last deal.
Now, it sure appears that Crosby recognizes his hockey mortality and how his health can't be taken for granted, which could prompt him to want a massive long-term deal as a measure of security for his future. From the Penguins' perspective, they obviously want Crosby to stay healthy and be the premier scorer than he's been throughout his career, but there is reason to be cautious when the next dangerous hit could be just around the corner. All that considered, the expectation is that Crosby will work out a new contract.
When it comes to Staal, however, the Penguins may be finding that it's a luxury to have Staal as a third-line centre behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, particularly because it appears that Staal has outgrown that role.
Certainly, the Penguins could find a way to keep Staal and sign him to a new contract as well, but if there is some doubt about the long-term viability of keeping Staal in that role, perhaps this summer is the time to explore opportunities.
Staal has said that, if he were to move, that he would prefer to join his brother, Eric Staal, in Carolina, so that might be the first place to look, but the challenge facing Ray Shero if he's going to make such a deal is that he has to bring in players that are ready to play for a Cup contender. There's no value to wasting the next couple prime years of Crosby and Malkin while waiting on prospects to develop.
The time, for these Penguins, is now.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma
This summer brings a complicated issue to the fore in Pittsburgh and that is, with one year remaining on his contract, it is time to work on a contract extension for Sidney Crosby. When healthy, Crosby remains the most productive player in the game, but health is what hangs over everything. Concussion problems have limited him to 63 (of a possible 164) games in the last two seasons, yet he's put up 103 points in those 63 games, so the upside is too great to pass up.
No one will fault the Penguins for investing big money in a long-term deal for Crosby because every other team in the league would do the same but, until the concussiongs get much further back in the rearview mirror, there is going to be a hyper-sensitivity about Crosby's health and that means the next devasating hit, in the blink of an eye, could be season-ending.
With those concerns as the backdrop, the bottom line is that the Penguins can be Stanley Cup contenders with a healthy Crosby.
Coming off a season in which he had his lowest points-per-game (0.86) of his career and required season-ending knee surgery in 2010-2011, Evgeni Malkin simply returned to the Penguins' lineup, led the league in scoring with the highest points-per-game (1.45) of his career. He's always been a brilliant talent and is one of the handful of players that can threaten 100 points on an annual basis, so Malkin at full strength takes the Penguins to a higher level.
One way that Malkin lifts this team is through the production of his wingers and James Neal was a prime beneficiary last season, scoring a career-high 40 goals and 81 points (this from a player that scored one goal in 20 games with the Penguins after arriving in a trade from Dallas the year before). He's a powerful winger who can finish and thrives alongside a creative playmaking centre, so his fit alongside Malkin is a natural.
While there is talk of moving Jordan Staal this summer, it's entirely understandable if the Penguins want to find a way to make it work with the 23-year-old who scored a career-high 50 points, despite playing only 62 games.
Staal does the heavy lifting for the Penguins, taking on the tough checking assignments and starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone (per www.behindthenet.ca), so he won't be easy to replace, but long-term value for the Penguins franchise means either getting Staal signed to an extension this summer or dealing him because, as he enters the final year of his contract, there is the risk that he could leave at the end of next season and the Penguins would get nothing in return.
Prior to last season, 33-year-old winger Pascal Dupuis had career-highs of 20 goals and 48 points, set in 2002-2003, with Minnesota. In 2011-2012, thanks to a 17-game point streak to finish the regular season, Dupuis had his most productive year, tallying 25 goals and 59 points along with a career-high plus-18 rating. He's a solid two-way winger, who gets the benefit of skating alongside Crosby when Crosby is in the lineup.
Chris Kunitz is another Penguins winger who hit career-best marks with 26 goals and 61 points. His 230 shots on goal were also easily a career high. Kunitz is a hard worker with some skill and, as such, is a fine complement to the Penguins' skilled centres.
A reliable checking winger who can move up the depth chart when required, Tyler Kennedy doesn't finish like a scoring winger and that was punctuated by last season's career-low 5.6% shooting percentage. However, he's been a relatively productive source of secondary scoring.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2011-2012 season, Matt Cooke scored a career-high 19 goals and his 38 point total was his most since 2002-2003. What made Cooke's year so surprising, though, is that he finished with just 44 penalty minutes after recording more than a penalty minute per game in nine of the previous ten seasons.
A forward with good size and at least a rudimentary offensive game, Dustin Jeffrey has 21 points in 66 career NHL games, playing about 12 minutes per game. The 24-year-old might be able to rise above a depth role, but that opportunity is hardly guaranteed to him and it would help if he could stay healthy enough to get established in the league.
Joe Vitale is a sturdy 26-year-old forward who hasn't scored more than a dozen goals in a season going back to 2004-2005 in the USHL, so he's not going to be a factor offensively, but can provide honest, hard-hitting minutes in a checking role.
26-year-old Vitale can be considered a younger version of 35-year-old veteran Craig Adams, who has been a reliable contributor to the Penguins, missing two games over the last three seasons.
While the Penguins are well-stocked at the top end of their forward depth chart, they could always bolster their depth with a couple of veteran checkers. Gregory Campbell and Jim Slater are a couple of free agent options that could add some toughness and checking skill to the lower half of the forward depth chart.
Free Agent Defence
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Concussions played a big part in Kris Letang missing 31 games last season, yet he remains one of the game's most skilled defencemen. Despite that missed time, he's one of three blueliners (Zdeno Chara and Alex Pietrangelo are the others) to have at least 90 points and a plus-30 rating over the past two seasons.
Heavy hitter Brooks Orpik played a career-high 22:19 per game last season and turned in the best plus-minus of his career, plus-19, and that comes while facing the toughest checking assignments night after night.
The Penguins were aggressive to sign Paul Martin as a free agent in the summer of 2010 and while he's been steady enough, he hasn't been terribly productive, scoring five goals and 51 points over his two seasons with the Penguins. At his price tag, the Penguins could use a tad more production from Martin.
Zbynek Michalek sees a similar workload to Orpik; not quite the same level of competition and ice time, but close. He's been an even player through two seasons with the Penguins but, not unlike Martin, is compensated very well despite minimal offensive production, which included a career-low 13 points last season.
It's taken Deryk Engelland a long time to establish himself as an NHLer since getting drafted in the sixth round in 2000, but the 29-year-old has (at times, literally) fought his way up through the organization and he turned in a solid performance as a third-pair defenceman last season.
On the bubble for the last couple seasons, and injured at times last year, Ben Lovejoy is a decent puck-moving defenceman who has 25 points and a plus-22 rating in 95 career games. As an economical number seven on the depth chart, the Penguins could surely do worse.
Matt Niskanen may be a little underutilized, considering that he had some decent stretches of productivity when injuries allowed him to play a bigger role (eg. nine points in an eight-game span in December, while playing more than 21 minutes per game).
Assuming that the Penguins get Niskanen under contract, their blueline is relatively full, which could prompt a trade if there is a need to make room for a prospect like Simon Despres or Joe Morrow.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Acquired from the Washington Capitals for a seventh-round pick, then signed to a two-year, $4-million contract, Tomas Vokoun brings experience and a high level of performance to Pittsburgh.
Vokoun slumped last November (.881 SV% in 10 GP), but it was the only month all season that his save percentage was below .915 and he's the only goaltender in the game to have a save percentage over .915 in each of the last seven seasons, his .921 save percentage in that time ranking fourth behind two Bruins (Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas) as well as Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
It's easy enough to suggest that 35-year-old Vokoun is an upgrade at the backup spot behind Marc-Andre Fleury, a viable option if Fleury collapses like he did in last season's playoffs, but the Penguins may be looking at a more competitive situation. As it stands now, Vokoun goes into next season as one of the league's highest-paid backups (Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin and the Islanders' Rick DiPietro are contenders for that somewhat dubious honour), making $500,000 more than he did to start for the Capitals last season.
That alone doesn't mean that Vokoun is going to take Fleury's job, but it as an indication that the Penguins won't feel compelled to play Fleury no matter what.
Fleury has been an okay NHL goaltender for the last five seasons -- his .913 save percentage in that time ranks 25th among goaltenders with at least 100 games played, 18th among those with at least 200 games -- yet his value is generally overestimated, in large part because of his role in the Penguins' 2008 and 2009 playoff runs to the Stanley Cup Finals.
After his performance in the first round against Philadelphia last season, however, Fleury isn't likely to be overvalued for a while. His .834 save percentage was the worst among goaltenders to play at least five games in a playoff season since they started tracking save percentage in 1984.
With the Penguins' top performers in prime position to win, Pittsburgh can ill-afford to cast their lot with only Fleury in goal.
||17-47-64, +6, 62 GP
||5-10-15, -5, 44 GP
||Denver University (WCHA)
||4-9-13, +3, 10 GP
||3-23-26, +26, 44 GP
||15-16-31, +1, 37 GP
||8-21-29, +14, 34 GP
||3-9-12, +9, 51 GP
||4-12-16, +7, 41 GP
||St. Cloud State (WCHA)
||23-20-43, +2, 39 GP
||14-20-34, +10, 33 GP
A first-round pick last summer, Joe Morrow has put in four seasons in the Western Hockey League, improving every year, and is ready for the pro game. He might need some time in the AHL, but Morrow could force his way onto the Penguins' roster next season.
2009 first-rounder Simon Despres was pressed into action with the Penguins, playing protected minutes in his first pro season. The 20-year-old has size and can make a good first pass coming out of his own end. If Pittsburgh really wants to overhaul their blueline, they could try and squeeze one or both of Morrow and Despres into the regular rotation next season.
Beau Bennett got off to a good start to his sophomore season, scoring 13 points in 10 games, before a severed tendon in his wrist put him on the shelf. He has since signed with the Penguins, so the 20-year-old, drafted in the first round in 2010, will play pro next season. After such a shortened campaign in 2010-2011, it would make sense for him to start in the AHL to maximize playing time and get used to the pro grind.
A second-round pick in 2011, stay-at-home defenceman Scott Harrington has improved a lot throughout his junior career and played at a high level last season, skating for Canada at the World Juniors as well as for London at the Memorial Cup.
Eric Tangradi is a 6-foot-4 winger who can score (33 goals, 64 points in 79 AHL games over the last two seasons), but hasn't been able to translate his minor-league production into his stints in the NHL, managing one goal and five points in 40 career games. The 23-year-old could be close to breaking through, but if he doesn't next season, will his time as a top prospect have passed him by?
German-born winger Tom Kuhnhackl took a step back last season, his production dipping after a strong year in Windsor in 2010-2011 and that was due, at least in part, to a 20-game suspension for a head hit on Kitchener defenceman (and Carolina Hurricanes prospect) Ryan Murphy. Especially given his lack of production last season, Kuehnhackl could use some time to develop before worrying about challenging for a job in Pittsburgh.
A big defenceman who isn't afraid to use his size, Robert Bortuzzo earned a six-game call-up to the Pittsburgh last season and the 23-year-old has put in three years of solid work in the AHL. With another club, he might have a better shot at a full-time opportunity in the NHL.
Brian Strait is a steady blueliner who, like Bortuzzo, has played three years in the AHL. Strait also played nine games for the Penguins last season, plus three more in the playoffs. There's nothing wrong with having depth, available to step in when injuries occur and that's about where 24-year-old Strait fits right now.
A winger with good size, Ben Hanowski had a breakthrough junior season at St. Cloud State, scoring better than a point-per-game. If he can do it again as a senior, the 2009 third-round pick should be well-equipped for the pro game.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2010, Kenny Agostino scored just more than a point-per-game as a sophomore with Yale. It's not the highest level of competition, but his production is promising.
Defencemen Nick D'Agostino and Philip Samuelsson offer additional prospect depth.
22nd - Tom Wilson, Tomas Hertl, Henrik Samuelsson
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins have approximately $61.6M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 19 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Penguins roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Penguins needed last year: Depth forwards.
They added: Steve Sullivan, Richard Park, Joe Vitale.
TRADE MARKET Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.