An Early Look at the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins
While it may seem like an eternity since the Pittsburgh Penguins left the ice at the Consol Energy Center having blown a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers, in reality it's been less than two months.
Given all of the changes that have taken place, from the surprise firing of general manager Ray Shero to the inevitable firing of head coach Dan Bylsma and the roster revamping that has occurred in such a short period of time, it's time for Pens fans to catch their collective breath and look ahead to next season.
With just two months until the start of training camp and the debut of the new-look team, let's take an early look at the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins returning to the ice this fall.
One week after the start of the free-agency signing period, the Penguins are already a different team than they were just a few weeks ago.
While the core group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury still remains intact, other key players such as Brooks Orpik, who has been with the organization since the 2000 draft, and James Neal and Matt Niskanen, who arrived via trade in 2011, are all moving on and leaving holes to fill.
As it stands now, the Pens have 18 of their 25 roster spots filled and are in the process of negotiating new deals with restricted free agents Brandon Sutter, Nick Spaling and Simon Despres, per Pittsburgh's WTAE.
Barring a trade, the Pens would then have four roster spots and the backup goaltender job up for grabs in training camp this fall.
Assuming that those spots are filled in-house, that means the Pens would only have 15 of the 25 members of last year's opening-game roster still wearing the Penguins logo to start next season.
While much has been made of the trade that sent James Neal to Nashville and the big impact the deal will have on the top two lines, the bigger story is how different the Penguins' bottom lines will be next season.
With Pascal Dupuis returning from a season-ending knee injury and Beau Bennett returning to action after yet another wrist surgery, the Pens' top two lines figure to be Sidney Crosby once again centering Chris Kunitz and Dupuis with Evgeni Malkin probably centering Bennett and newcomer Patric Hornqvist.
Assuming he's resigned, Brandon Sutter will once again center the third line, but the Pens will have flexibility as Blake Comeau can play either wing, Nick Spaling can play center or either wing and Steve Downie could play on any line as either a forechecker or a bodyguard for Crosby or Malkin.
After a strong showing in the postseason, Marcel Goc will reprise his role as the fourth center and faceoff specialist, with Craig Adams on one wing and an AHL product such as Zach Sill or Jayson Megna filling the other spot.
Overall, the Pens' top-six forwards are, at least on paper, not as talented as last season's group, but their bottom-six forwards will be much improved next season and will be able to take some of the burden off of the top lines.
Last season, the Pens had only six forwards reach double digits in goals, while the two conference champions, the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers, had eight and nine forwards respectively reach that mark.
With eight players on the roster who have 20-plus goal seasons already on their resume, the Pens should be a deeper and much more balanced team next season.
After losing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to the Washington Capitals and Deryk Engelland to the Calgary Flames for more than $60 million combined in long-term contracts, the Pens' blue line will have a different look next season.
With the signing of Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million deal, the Pens will still have one of the more talented groups of defensemen in the NHL, but with top prospect Derrick Pouliot and standout rookie Olli Maatta both coming off of shoulder surgery, there are still some unanswered questions.
One of the biggest questions is what to do with Simon Despres, the former first-round pick who has all of the tools to be a top-notch NHL defenseman but, at least in the eyes of the previous regime, hasn't shown the consistency to stay in the lineup.
Another question is what to do with Paul Martin, who was the Pens' top defenseman last season but is in the final year of his contract and seems intent on exploring free agency.
Yet another question is what to do with Rob Scuderi, who struggled at times last season and still has three years left on his contract and an annual $3.375 million cap hit, which coupled with Kris Letang's $7.25 million cap hit accounts for almost 20 percent of the Pens' total salaries, per CapGeek.com.
Given the stated intent by the Pens' front office to give their top blue-line prospects an opportunity at the NHL level, it wouldn't be a shock to see either Martin or Scuderi dealt before the season. But for now, the Pens seem happy with their blue line.
Barring a shocking turn of events, Marc-Andre Fleury will open the 2014-15 season as the Penguins' starting goaltender for the ninth straight season.
While there had been rumors of everything from a trade to a contract extension for Fleury, new Pens general manager Jim Rutherford, a former netminder for them during his playing days, wisely chose to simply let him play out his existing contract and reassess the goaltending situation next summer.
Without much a trade market for him and given his strong desire to remain in Pittsburgh, Fleury wouldn't figure to be difficult to re-sign if the Pens choose to do so.
With Fleury's starting job seemingly safe for now, Jeff Zatkoff and newcomer Thomas Greiss will battle for the backup goaltender job, with the loser likely to be traded to avoid being claimed on waivers.
Although the Pens have good organizational depth in net with Tristan Jarry, Matthew Murray and Eric Hartzell, those players are likely still a couple years away from being NHL-ready, and with limited cap space the Pens won't have the flexibility to bring in a top free-agent goaltender until next offseason.
After losing key players like James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Jussi Jokinen, most would assume that the Penguins will not be as good next season.
However, considering the players they've added and what the rest of the Metropolitan Division has done this offseason, it becomes clear that they are still the team to beat both in the division and in the conference.
Although the New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders will be better next season, the Carolina Hurricanes stood pat, while the Philadelphia Flyers are more than $3 million over the $69 million salary cap, per CapGeek.com, and will have to dump more salaries before the start of next season.
After reaching the Stanley Cup finals, the New York Rangers lost key depth players in Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett and Benoit Pouliot, used a compliance buyout on Brad Richards and added 37-year-old Dan Boyle to what was already a crowded blue line.
While the Washington Capitals made the biggest splashes this offseason by naming Barry Trotz as their head coach and signing Niskanen and Orpik, they still lack depth up front and have not solved their goaltending issues.
Even the President's Trophy-winning Boston Bruins have taken a step back with the loss of Jarome Iginla and will need to unload more salary just to resign restricted free agents Torey Krug and Reilly Smith.
With just one of the top eight regular-season teams (the Chicago Blackhawks) advancing past the second round of the playoffs, it's apparent that teams need to build for the postseason instead of the regular season. By adding grit, speed and depth, the Pens have done just that.