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Off-Season Game Plan: Pittsburgh Penguins

Scott Cullen
6/12/2014 11:14:47 PM
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The Pittsburgh Penguins have made the playoffs for eight years running, but losing in Game Seven of the second round this year caused them to clean house, firing GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Penguins team that has a new general manager, Jim Rutherford, and is still looking for a coach, but will surely expect to ice Cup contender next season.

It's a little difficult to forecast what next year's Penguins club will look like, not knowing yet who will be coaching, but it's safe to expect some significant turnover on the roster. Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines were obliterated for much of last season and many of those players are unrestricted free agents, so that's a starting point for change.

Then, pending free agent D Matt Niskanen is coming off a career year that should price him out of the Penguins' cap, as will Brooks Orpik, so there will be openings on the blueline for young defencemen to step in and play.

In goal, maybe the new regime sticks with Marc-Andre Fleury for the final year of his contract, or maybe they will be more aggressive and go for sweeping changes.

If the Penguins are inclined to move Fleury or James Neal or Kris Letang, that would be a big-splash move. Given their lack of depth on defence, moving Letang would be risky, but if Rutherford is inclined to shake things up, maybe the Penguins will look different than they did in 2013-2014, and maybe that's not an altogether bad idea.

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) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Jim Rutherford/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Sidney Crosby 85.72 80 36 68 104 53.0% $8.7M
Evgeni Malkin 81.83 60 23 49 72 53.0% $9.5M
James Neal 80.16 59 27 34 61 55.4% $5.0M
Chris Kunitz 77.05 78 35 33 68 52.2% $3.85M
Pascal Dupuis 69.79 39 7 13 20 53.6% $3.75M
Beau Bennett 62.54 21 3 4 7 57.8% $900K
Craig Adams 57.78 82 5 6 11 40.8% $700K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Jussi Jokinen 72.52 81 21 36 57 54.8% UFA $3.0M
Brandon Sutter 66.02 81 13 13 26 42.9% RFA $2.067M
Lee Stempniak 65.58 73 12 22 34 47.5% UFA $2.5M
Marcel Goc 64.31 74 11 14 25 50.8% UFA $1.7M
Brian Gibbons 64.22 41 5 12 17 51.0% UFA $550K
Joe Vitale 59.42 55 1 13 14 44.3% UFA $550K
Tanner Glass 58.72 67 4 9 13 39.3% UFA $1.1M
Taylor Pyatt 55.91 56 4 1 5 42.4% UFA $1.55M

Healthy for the first time in four seasons, Sidney Crosby won his second scoring title and he's the runaway leader among active players in points per game (1.40). Sounds great, right? Well, it was up until the playoffs, when Crosby had a positively mortal showing, with one goal and nine points in 13 games. His possession numbers in the playoffs were still outstanding, but when the Penguins leave the playoffs earlier than expected, no one wants possession stats, they want goals. So, Crosby's rep takes a hit for that playoff slump, but he's still the best in the game so long as he stays healthy.

Injuries have started to pose a problem for Evgeni Malkin over the past couple seasons, as he's missed 39 games in two years since he led the league in scoring 2011-2012. While Crosby has been the league's top even-strength point producer over the past couple seasons, Malkin ranks 19th, which is good, but not befitting his skill level, which is right at the top of the league. Over the same time frame, he's more effective with the man advantage, ranking fifth in points/60 during 5-on-4 play.

So long as the Penguins have those two, they have a chance to contend for the Cup but, as we've seen over the past five seasons, it can't be just those two. The supporting cast matters.

Since the start of the 2011-2012 season, James Neal ranks fifth in goals (88) and tied for 17th in points (178) with strong possession stats, yet he's another player coming off a disappointing playoff performance (2 G, 2 A in 13 GP) and has been mentioned as a possible trade candidate if the Penguins are looking for a major shake-up. Neal is on a very reasonable contract, for the next four seasons, but maybe that's what makes him even more appealing and could yield the highest rate of return. Dealing a 26-year-old scoring power forward isn't an easy decision, but is an option available to new GM Rutherford.

A 34-year-old coming off a career-best season, Chris Kunitz set career-best marks in goals (35), points (68) and played a career-high 19:09 per game. However, he faded down the stretch, with 13 points in 24 games from the start of February through the end of the regular season and he consistently gets leveled with criticism that his production is tied to his place on Crosby's wing. No matter with whom Kunitz has played, his possession numbers have always been excellent, so he warrants a top-six role, but as he hits his mid-thirties, it's also reasonable to expect decline.

Pascal Dupuis missed more than half of the 2013-2014 season after tearing his ACL, and while he's been a solid player alongside Crosby, there's a feeling that the Penguins could do better with a more skilled player in that spot. If Dupuis is back up to speed next season, he should have an opportunity to reclaim his old gig, but it wouldn't come as a shock if the 35-year-old, with one season of more than 50 points on his resumé, was placed into more of a checking/two-way role.

A couple injuries, most notably wrist surgery, limited Beau Bennett to just 21 games in his second pro season and while his point production hasn't yet broken through, he had impressive possession numbers and saw regular time in a top-six role once he returned to the lineup. Going into next season, Bennett may have first crack at a spot on one of the Penguins' scoring lines.

Craig Adams has missed two games in the past five seasons and the durable checker doensn't cheat on the effort he gives night-in and night-out. He also scores remarkably little for as much as he plays -- the 12:28 per game he logged last season representing his highest average time on ice since 2003-2004. That's probably too much ice time for a 37-year-old who has been getting obliterated in possession terms for a while now, but Adams is an inexpensive depth forward with two Stanley Cups to his credit.

Similarly durable, Brandon Sutter has missed one game in the past four seasons and while he gets fed defensive zone starts as the Penguins' No. 3 center, Sutter has been getting thumped possession-wise with the Penguins. Maybe that's a function of subpar linemates, and that could be improved with offseason additions, but Sutter could use a better season in 2014-2015 to establish his credentials as a two-way checking centre.

The priority for the Penguins this offseason should be to upgrade their third and fourth lines. While that might be considered tweaking, adding three or four legitimate forwards to the roster is more than cosmetic change.

How the Penguins fill out their forward vacancies will be hugely important, but it's not going to be easy. Even with young, inexpensive defencemen on the roster, the Penguins have marquee players like Crosby, Malkin and Neal that take up a good chunk of the cap room and when the Penguins need to add as many bodies as they do, it would really help to find a bargain or two.

Some options that could be of interest include: Nikolai Kulemin, Blake Comeau, Brian Boyle, Steve Ott, Steve Downie, Derek MacKenzie, Manny Malhotra, Jay McClement and Peter Regin; the Pegnuins also may want to re-sign Brian Gibbons, who showed enough in half a season to warrant a full-time role.

 

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Kris Letang 74.43 37 11 11 22 48.8% $7.25M
Paul Martin 73.40 39 3 12 15 49.2% $5.0M
Olli Maatta 66.91 78 9 20 29 50.5% $894K
Robert Bortuzzo 61.14 54 0 10 10 45.4% $600K
Rob Scuderi 55.52 53 0 4 4 43.9% $3.375M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Matt Niskanen 74.53 81 10 36 46 53.4% UFA $2.3M
Brooks Orpik 63.71 72 2 11 13 46.2% UFA $3.75M
Deryk Engelland 62.01 56 6 6 12 43.8% UFA $567K

There are some complicated situations on this Penguins roster and none may be more challenging than Kris Letang, an elite puck-moving defenceman who has played more than 24 minutes per game for four straight seasons and was third in Norris Trophy voting in 2012-2013.

However, Letang had quite a 2013-2014 season, marked by suffering a stroke which, combined with other injuries, contributed to his missing 45 games. When he did play, Letang finished with a career-high 11 goals, yet his relative possession stats were the worst of his career and he also had the lowest on-ice shooting percentage of his career, which is most likely a run of bad luck.

With all that in the file, along with Letang's pricey contract extension kicking in, it's possible that he's part of a major shake-up, though the stroke might make it difficult for another team to pull the trigger, no matter how well Letang has played when healthy.

A broken leg and broken hand cost Paul Martin more than half of last season, and while Martin has handled a heavy workload for the Penguins -- nearly 25 minutes per game over the past couple seasons -- he's also seen his puck possession numbers dip, which could be function of others in the Pittsburgh lineup, but it doesn't reflect well on Martin. He's 33 and heading into the final year of his contract, so an extension is possible, or maybe the new regime will be fine to let Martin play it out.

Olli Maatta had a wonderful rookie season, earning a bigger role with his steady play. The 19-year-old was poised and not afraid to join the play -- his 29 points ranking fifth among teen defencemen since 2000 -- so while he arrived without too much fanfare last season, expectations will justifiably be higher for Maatta next year. It won't be easy, however, since he's not likely to be ready for the start of the year as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery.

A physical presence when he's in the lineup, Robert Bortuzzo saw action in a career-high 54 games last season and he's on the edge of a spot in the lineup. He doesn't move the puck well enough to climb the depth chart, but as a six or seven, he's probably a reasonable fit.

Times get tough for defensive defencemen as they age, what with the wear and tear of constant battles and blocked shots, and so it goes with 35-year-old Rob Scuderi, a two-time Cup winner who was stuck in his own end a lot last season.

The good news for the Penguins is that they have defence in the pipeline. Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot (when healthy) are all prospects that should be able to help, very soon.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Marc-Andre Fleury 68.29 64 39 18 5 2.37 .915 $5.0M
Jeff Zatkoff 63.85 20 12 6 2 2.61 .912 $600K

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Tomas Vokoun               UFA $2.0M

Over the past four seasons, Marc-Andre Fleury has a .916 save percentage in the regular season, which puts him 14th among goaltenders with at least 150 games played, and that's entirely fine. He was even okay in this year's playoffs, his .915 save percentage in the postseason was the second-best of his career. He has one year left on his current contract and it's possible that the Penguins will let that play out, but maybe not.

27-year-old Jeff Zatkoff finally reached The Show, while Tomas Vokoun was out for the season, and Zatkoff was a serviceable backup for 20 games, earning a new contract that makes him a very inexpensive backup. Provided his play doesn't slip too far, Zatkoff could provide nice value.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Derrick Pouliot D Portland (WHL) 17-53-70, +40, 58 GP
Simon Despres D Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 6-17-23, +19, 36 GP
Brian Dumoulin D Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 5-16-21, +2, 53 GP
Tristan Jarry G Edmonton (WHL) 2.24 GAA, .914 SV%, 63 GP
Scott Harrington D Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 5-19-24, +9, 76 GP
Matt Murray G Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 2.57 GAA, .921 SV%, 49 GP
Jayson Megna RW Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 9-6-15, +13, 25 GP
Josh Archibald LW Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC) 29-14-43, +2, 37 GP
Oskar Sundqvist C Skelleftea (SHL) 6-10-16, +6, 51 GP
Philip Samuelsson D Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 3-19-22, +17, 64 GP
Jake Guentzel C Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC) 7-27-34, -2, 37 GP
Anton Zlobin LW Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) 8-11-19, +15, 46 GP

The eighth overall pick in 2012, Derrick Pouliot has a chance to a difference-maker on the blueline. An elite puck-moving defenceman who can run the power play and blast from the point, Pouliot had 102 points in 79 WHL (regular season plus playoff) games last season. His arrival in the NHL will be delayed as he recovers from shoulder surgery, but even if that means he's not an option for the first hallf of next season, there's a chance that Pouliot could contribute after that.

A new regime may be just what the doctor ordered for Simon Despres, the 30th pick in the 2009 Draft, who has played well in his NHL opportunities, putting up 16 points in 85 career games, but also hasn't been able to lock up a regular spot. With free agents likely on the move and Pouliot recovering from surgery, Despres should have a very good chance to stick with Pittsburgh next season.

Acquired from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade, Brian Dumoulin had a strong season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and got into six games with Pittsburgh. He has good size, which he could use more, but can move the puck and handle big minutes in the AHL. Could be time for a longer look at the next level.

Drafted in the second round last summer, Tristan Jarry backstopped Edmonton to the Memorial Cup, handling a heavy workload (84 games between regular season and playoffs). He's a 19-year-old goaltender, so it's going to take some time before he's ready to challenge for a spot.

Picked in the second round in 2011, Scott Harrington had a solid first pro campaign and projects to be a shutdown defender when he reaches Pittsburgh. That day may not be too far down the road.

Taken in the third round in 2012, Matt Murray had an excellent season with Saulte Ste. Marie of the OHL, an indication that perhaps he's starting to reach his potential. The 6-foot-5 'tender needs to fill out and will have time in the AHL to further develop his game. Of course, having Jarry in the organization too ought to ensure that Murray isn't complacent as he climbs the ladder.

Signed as a free agent out of Nebraska-Omaha, Jayson Megna split last season between the AHL and NHL, putting up nine pints (5 G, 4 A) in 36 games with Pittsburgh. He could have a chance to compete for a depth role next season.

A sixth-round pick in 2011, Josh Archibald had 79 points in 76 games over his last two collegiate seasons and joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at season's end. He's small, but will get the chance to show that he can use his speed to create scoring opportunities as a pro.

Two-way centre Oskar Sundqvist was a third-round pick in 2012 and played in the Swedish Hockey League for league champs Skelleftea last season. See how he adjusts to North America and go from there.

There are a few blueliners ahead of Philip Samuelsson on the Penguins' organizational depth chart, but the 2009 second-rounder has made steady progress, getting into five games with Pittsburgh last season.

A smallish playmaker, Jake Guentzel was a third-round pick last summer and then had a strong freshman season at Nebraska-Omaha (same school as Megna and Archibald). With a few years to fill out and get stronger, he'll have a chance to be a solid pro.

It wasn't the easiest first pro season for Anton Zlobin, a sixth-round pick in 2012, who spent some time in the ECHL (scoring 11 points in 10 games), but he had 10 points in his last 17 regular season games, then 10 points in 15 playoff games. If he continues on that path next season, his production will get him noticed.

Penguins advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
22nd - Josh HoSang, Ivan Barbashev, Jakub Vrana

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins have approximately $55.1M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 14 players.

Check out my possible Penguins lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: An overhaul of their bottom six forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen.

What I said the Penguins needed last year: (apparently skipped this part for Penguins last year)

They added: Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo.

TRADE MARKET
James Neal, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Marc-Andre Fleury.

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.




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