Despite yet another strong year in the standings—the team’s fifth consecutive 100-point campaign, if we prorate the shortened 2012-13 season—the ownership of the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the summer in a mood for big changes.
General manager Ray Shero was fired in mid-May; head coach Dan Bylsma followed him out the door a few weeks later. Veteran executive Jim Rutherford was brought aboard to overhaul the team’s roster with exactly one goal in mind: winning the Stanley Cup in short order.
For Rutherford, success or failure will be measured by postseason accomplishment. The Penguins have been a regular-season powerhouse for the last half-decade, but they haven’t won even a single game in the conference final in that span; twice they have been bounced in the first round.
The question is whether the changes Rutherford has authored this summer represent enough improvement for the team to put together a deep playoff run.
In net, Marc-Andre Fleury remains the presumptive No. 1. In Thomas Greiss, the Pens have added a more proven backup than Jeff Zatkoff, but they haven’t brought in a player of the same calibre as Tomas Vokoun, Zatkoff’s predecessor who displaced Fleury in the 2013 postseason (a playoffs which, not coincidentally, saw Pittsburgh go to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2009).
On defence, the underrated Christian Ehrhoff is a fantastic addition and should offset the loss of Matt Niskanen. The loss of Brooks Orpik won’t be as big a blow as his average nightly ice time of 21:11 would seem to indicate; the Pens have been routinely hammered with Orpik on the ice. However, those are significant minutes (and tough ones, given Orpik’s role) to replace internally.
Along with those indifferent moves there should be some concern that the top-six forward group is going to be worse. In trading James Neal for Patric Hornqvist (and depth forward Nick Spaling), Rutherford is betting hard that Neal’s gaudy offensive totals are a product of playing alongside Evgeni Malkin (and, to a lesser extent, Sidney Crosby).
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari notes, injury could be a factor, too:
Passing on [winger Nikolai] Kulemin leaves the Penguins with six forwards—centers Sidney Crosby and Malkin and wingers Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist and Beau Bennett—who are logical candidates to play on the top two lines next season. It’s worth noting that Dupuis will be returning from reconstructive knee surgery and Bennett is recovering from a wrist operation.
Rutherford seems to be banking that changes made to Pittsburgh’s depth forwards will be enough to dramatically improve a team that is running the same questionable starting goalie and hasn’t noticeably improved its defence or its top-six forward group.
The changes there have been significant, with three alterations to Pittsburgh’s presumed NHL depth chart from the group that competed in the 2014 playoffs (additionally, trade deadline acquisition Marcel Goc will be with the team for all of 2014-15). Gone are Joe Vitale, Brian Gibbons (who also saw time in the top six due to injury) and Tanner Glass; in are Spaling, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau.
There is no question the latter three are better players; all of the newcomers saw more minutes with their respective teams in 2013-14 than the players they are replacing saw with the Penguins. In Downie, Pittsburgh adds some offensive punch and has made a cheap bet that could pay off in spades. Comeau is an underrated two-way player. Spaling’s underlying numbers aren’t overly impressive, but he plays in all situations and at age 25 is in the prime of his career.
The "X-factor" here is the change behind the bench. Bylsma is (rightly) highly regarded, but replacement Mike Johnston served a long NHL apprenticeship under Marc Crawford and has been spectacularly successful as the head coach of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.
It doesn’t seem nearly enough in all.
The Penguins should be better in the depth department, and of course Crosby and Malkin are true superstars, both top-five NHL players. But this is still a team that leans heavily on Fleury as its starting goalie and doesn’t have a proven option behind him; a team that has some question marks on defence and in its top-six.
Still, there is perhaps only so much Rutherford could do this summer. Fleury is an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and it may well be that Rutherford’s makeover of the Penguins will see its signature move at that time.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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