The Penguins brought in Phil Kessel to create a three-headed monster with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and there’s reason for expectations to be high in Pittsburgh. But can the high-flying offense make up for a sometimes-shaky defense corps?
2014-15 Record: 43-27-12 (98 pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 5th, Metropolitan Division
What To Expect: A mix of uproar and apathy from Penguins fans after another early playoff departure transformed into renewed optimism when GM Jim Rutherford made the biggest splash of the NHL off-season. The common refrain of “get a winger for Sidney Crosby” was silenced with the acquisition of five-time 30-goal scorer
Phil Kessel. And, to the delight of Pens faithful, Pittsburgh didn’t surrender either of its top two prospects –
Derrick Pouliot and
Olli Maatta – to seal the transaction. It also gets Kessel at a discount after Toronto agreed to retain $1.2 million for each of the seven years left on his pact. Rutherford also upgraded the bottom six forwards, swapping
Nick Bonino in for
Brandon Sutter and adding
Matt Cullen and
Sergei Plotnikov in free agency. Rutherford’s off-season shuffling will get the Penguins into the post-season, but they’ll struggle to keep pace in the Metro Division.
Kessel and the upgraded bottom six will elevate the offense, which was 19th last year. The power play, tied for eighth last season, could push to the top with the threat of Kessel’s shot creating space for Crosby and
Evgeni Malkin, and vice versa. The ‘D’ is thin on paper, but team defense isn’t a big concern. The Pens were third in penalty kill and a top-10 defending team overall.
Kris Letang and Maatta, both unhealthy last season, are the top pair. The group gets significantly younger with the departures of
Paul Martin and
Christian Ehrhoff, leaving second-pair duty to Pouliot and
Ian Cole, the latter of whom exceeded expectations and logged big minutes after being acquired in the second half.
Marc-Andre Fleury had his best season in 2014-15 with 10 shutouts. He’s a reliable first-stringer, especially in the regular season. With Crosby and Malkin creeping toward 30, there’s a growing sense the Penguins’ Cup window won’t be open much longer as their superstars begin to decline. Rutherford’s bold maneuvering keeps them in the playoff mix but won’t bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh this season.
Best-Case Scenario: The Penguins’ video-game offense should give them as good an opportunity in the Eastern Conference as any team. If Kessel fits well alongside Malkin or Crosby, Pittsburgh could have one of the most potent offensive duos in the entire NHL. Add in a blueline that includes a healthy Letang and Maatta, the underrated Cole and emerging sophomore Derrick Pouliot and the Penguins are going to compete. If they get hot in the post-season, they could pull off some upsets and play for the Stanley Cup.
Worst-Case Scenario: Penguins fans might have a reason to hold their breath on every hit and shot block. Few teams have had to deal with the injury problems Pittsburgh has over the past few seasons, and should the roster get depleted by injury, 2015-16 could turn into another let down for the Penguins. With the roster Rutherford has assembled on paper, Pittsburgh fans are looking for another Stanley Cup, but health has held the Penguins back in the past and it could do so again this season.
Who To Watch: Could it be anyone but Kessel? One of the league’s most prolific goal scorers over the past several seasons, Kessel is coming into Pittsburgh with the opportunity to play alongside inarguably the two best players he’s ever had as his pivot in Crosby and Malkin. Kessel is the perfect addition to the Penguins’ power play, he takes some of the offensive onus off of Crosby and Malkin and he has 40-plus-goal potential in a lineup that doesn’t lack firepower. Kessel is coming off of a 25-goal, 61-point campaign in Toronto — his worst full-season production since 2008-09 — but there’s no reason to assume he’ll fail to eclipse those totals in Pittsburgh. Alongside Crosby, who knows how many goals Kessel could score.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. There’s a lot of pessimism surrounding the Penguins this season, but the numbers suggest this is a still a high calibre team that’s more likely to top the Metro than fight for a playoff spot. This team still has two of the best players in the league in Crosby and Malkin and it’s tough to lose many games with those two in the lineup. WAR underrates both of them a bit thanks to a lack of accounting for playmaking ability – their biggest strength – so their worth is probably much higher than these projections too. The Penguins are also finally surrounding them with decent depth options which should lower the burden on the two superstars. That should help Crosby, who has had to handle the bulk of defensive assignments since the departure of Jordan Staal. There’s also the addition of elite winger Kessel whose projected numbers are heavily deflated thanks to a disastrous 2014-15 season. He’s been a consistent two-win player during his prime and while his defensive WAR is a concern, it won’t be as bad as it was last season, especially on a better defensive team. Playing with Crosby or Malkin means his shooting talent should bounce back too.
On the backend, the defensemen on the team are unproven, yes, but also underrated. The focus for them is getting the puck up to their talented forwards and they have the guys to do it. Maatta and Pouliot have been great so far in their limited minutes, and if Letang is healthy he’s one of the league’s best d-men. The team may lack the traditional crease-clearer on the back-end (other than the replaceable Rob Scuderi), but they more than make up for it in the transition game which means the puck won’t be spending too much time in their zone anyways. And if it’s in the offensive zone often – with this forward group – the Penguins will have no trouble winning games this season.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.