Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford pulled off a headlining trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding Phil Kessel after getting dusted off early by the New York Rangers in last years playoffs. Was lack of scoring really what hurt this team? Was it lack of depth? Questions about the goaltending?
That’s only half the trouble with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even if the on-ice product improves significantly, who will sign the paychecks? Mario Lemieux hasn’t killed sale rumors yet and while I can’t see the Pittsburgh Penguins relocating, how engaged will the new majority owner be with the on-ice product? Will it be a person with hockey or business pedigree?
And what of the future? The Pittsburgh Penguins have several players under long-term contracts but what of the next generation? Let’s take a look at a franchise with élite talent throughout yet more questions than answers.
Jim Rutherford joined the Pittsburgh Penguins after a two decade tenure with the Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers franchise, winning General Manager of the Year twice. Rutherford replaced Ray Shero, himself a Stanley Cup Champion with the Penguins in 2009. Rutherford seems to pick up where Shero left off in terms of bold trades given his acquisition of Kessel.
What Rutherford brings in experience and a successful track record, head coach Mike Johnston is working to build. Johnston will enter his second season with the Pittsburgh Penguins after a winning record despite finishing in the top five in man games lost to injury. Johnston has a pedigree of working with stars internationally and in the WHL, proving he can coach élite talent and develop players with equal skill.
The potential anvil hanging over both men is the ownership situation. Mario Lemieux is as respected a hockey mind as exists and receives much credit for saving the Pittsburgh Penguins when he bought the team in the fall of 1999. If Lemieux does sell his majority stake in the Penguins I don’t feel it will be to an individual or group that isn’t committed to Pittsburgh. An ownership change will only happen if it ensures the stability of the franchise.
The top of the Pittsburgh Penguins roster is loaded with All-Star talent. Start with the obvious. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best five players in the NHL. Kris Letang moves the puck as well as any in the game. And Marc-Andre Fleury is better than his reputation. Look at his numbers for last season and tell me he isn’t a rock-solid number one goaltender.
Add Phil Kessel to that group and the Pittsburgh Penguins will put major pressure on opposing defense. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel could all hit 40 goals. All that offense has to stay on the ice, a serious problem for the Penguins last year. Only two players on the roster played in all 82 games, Nick Spalding and Rob Scuderi.
Losing that many man games provides opportunity for other players to step up. But for every Patric Hornqvist or Beau Bennett, there’s an Olli Maatta with major health questions. If healthy Maatta showed great offensive capability without being a liability in his own zone. He will contribute to secondary scoring the Pittsburgh Penguins desperately need.
There are defensive depth issues as well. Letang and Maatta are coming off major health scares more important than any hockey game. Scuderi is 36 and not the player he once was while winning two Stanley Cups. The rest of the defense is either young and unproven or has limitations. The Penguins absolutely need another defensemen whom can play top four minutes if Derrick Pouliot doesn’t continue his growth and fill the need.
They also need a goaltender as Fleury is the only one under contract. With the Penguins roster so top-heavy yet a team with playoff hopes, I expect a veteran goaltender on a short-term deal. Watch what happens with the Edmonton Oilers in training camp as they won’t carry three goaltenders once the season starts.
Overall the roster has plenty of star power but health and depth questions need answered. While those answers could come from within, I need to see more before proclaiming the Pittsburgh Penguins a playoff threat. A team with Crosby, Malkin and Kessel can’t have a bad roster grade though.
Part of the Pittsburgh Penguins future is on the roster full-time this year. Derrick Pouliot will be important to the success of the team this year so I’ll leave him off this grade. Even without him, the Penguins may have quite the NHL pipeline ready.
Hockey’s Future points out the great speed the Penguins have coming. The future also seems very bright on defense. When that happens has some doubt as many of the prospects have been labeled “long-term” and “high risk/reward”. The depth of forward prospects also is concerning:
"Weaknesses: Kasperi Kapanen is the sole top-six forward prospect in the system, and past him a lot of question marks. Graduations and trades have depleted what was once one of the deepest groups of defensive prospects in the NHL. Past the handful of top prospects, there are a lot of players who have either under achieved or failed to meet their potential for one reason or another. Hockey’s Future."
Time will tell whether the Pittsburgh Penguins future stars come from within. Being ranked nineteenth in the league isn’t a great sign but it’s also hard to predict how young players will take the next step, if at all.
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