The Most Disappointing Pittsburgh Penguins So Far in 2013-14
Although the Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a fast start with a record of 20-9-1 and currently sit in first place atop the Metropolitan Division, not everything has gone according to plan for head coach Dan Bylsma.
While players such as Chris Kunitz and James Neal are on pace for career years, other players who were counted to as important key roles are off to slow starts and have underperformed thus far in the 2013-14 season.
As the team looks to add to its current five-game winning streak, its fifth winning streak of at least three games already, let's take a look at the most disappointing Pittsburgh Penguin so far this season.
With three of their top-four defensemen over 30 years old and in the last or next-to-last years of their contracts, the Penguins are expected to revamp their blue-line corps over the next few seasons and had been counting on, among others, Robert Bortuzzo to step forward and assume a greater share of the workload.
Unfortunately, Bortuzzo hasn't taken that step, and despite injuries to Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang, he is actually seeing less ice time this season (13:07) as opposed to last season (13:17), has no points in 15 games and is minus-three—which ties him for second worst on the team.
After starting the season alongside Olli Maatta on the Pens' third defensive pairing where he played in 14 of the team's first 18 games, Bortuzzo has been relegated to the pressbox as a healthy scratch as Deryk Engelland and recent call-up Simon Despres have taken over that role.
With Scuderi due back this month and Paul Martin scheduled to return to action around the start of the Winter Olympics in February, Bortuzzo may not have many opportunities remaining to convince the organization that he is more valuable to the Pens on the ice rather than as a trade asset.
When Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, shortly after being swept out of the playoff by the Boston Bruins, stated that Beau Bennett was going to be a top-six forward, many wondered whether he actually believed that or was simply trying to save his job.
Having moved him to the second line to start the season, Bylsma showed he clearly believed that Bennett had the talent. Unfortunately, Bennett's play thus far hasn't matched Bylsma's expectations.
Even before suffering a wrist injury against the New York Islanders, he was struggling to find his way offensively playing alongside Evgeni Malkin and, despite his reputation as a lethal shooter, had managed just one goal, two assists and 14 shots on goal in 12 games and was averaging just 12:29 of ice time; surprisingly low for a top-six forward.
With 40-goal scorer James Neal now back from injury and firmly entrenched next to Malkin, Bennett will most likely return to the ice with the third line and, barring injury, remain there for a while.
Although Bylsma said that Bennett will be a top-six forward, he didn't say when.
Drafted with the 30th pick in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, Despres has, in the minds of Penguins fans, been everything from superstar in the making to regrettable draft bust.
Blessed with size, speed and skill, Despres seemingly has all of the attributes that teams look for in a top-four defenseman but has not yet put it all together.
Despite starting last season in the NHL, he was benched for most of the postseason, was sent down to the minors to start the 2013-14 season and was only recently called up to fill in for the injured Paul Martin.
Thus far, he has no goals and just one assist and is a plus-five through five games after what the organization had hoped was a breakout season.
While Despres certainly has the skills to produce at the NHL level and will get the opportunities, at least in he short term, due to injuries, the question remains whether those opportunities will continue when the blue-line corps is healthy again or if the Pens will look to move him in a deal.
Despite Bylsma's assertion that Depres would be a top-four defenseman, he simply has not shown enough to merit that promotion yet, and in his third pro season and final year of his entry-level contract, time may be running out for him to do so.
After he struggled against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final last season, many wondered if Kris Letang was worth the money that the Penguins would have to pay to sign him to a long-term contract.
Evidently, Pens general manager Ray Shero was not one of those people as he signed Letang to an eight-year, $58 million contract with the hope that he could continue to develop into a more complete player and eventually win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman.
With his future in Pittsburgh secured, the Pens and their fans were hoping that Letang would start off the 2013-14 season strong, but that has not been the case.
Having missed nine games due to an injury, Letang's playmaking ability has been slow to return, and although he has six goals and a shooting percentage over nine percent, he has only five assists in 21 games after averaging almost an assist per game (33 assists in 35 games) last season.
Defensively, Letang has struggled at times with turnovers and, after finishing fifth on the team with a plus-15 last season, is a minus-three—tied for the second-worst rating on the team so far this season.
While the Pens have won five in a row and eight of their past 10, Letang's slow start is a concern, and since he is such an integral part of the Pens' system, it's hard to see them claiming the top seed and advancing deep into playoffs if he can't perform at the same level he did last season.