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With a little over a week before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh was once one of the most feared teams in the league, centered by two of the best players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The duo led the Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cup final appearances, winning the Cup in 2009. However, the team has lost its luster of late. The Pittsburgh Penguins hope that the moves made in the offseason will return them to their former glory.
Last season – The Penguins finished top of the Metropolitan division last year, to the surprise of no one. Crosby finished the season with over 100 points, and Malkin, despite missing 22 games last season, finished well over a point-per-game as well. If not for an average performance in March, Pittsburgh could have finished at the top of the Eastern Conference as well. Instead, with 109 points, the Penguins finished second behind the Boston Bruins.
Despite their high finish in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins once again fell well short of the Stanley Cup in the postseason. Becoming somewhat of a pattern these past few years, the Penguins struggled to pass the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Though the Penguins had a better roster on paper, the series was full of multi-goal collapses from both teams. Pittsburgh won the series in six games, but the problems that arose in the first round would appear again in the second.
In the second round, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the New York Rangers, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. Unfortunately for the Penguins, they simply could not finish the series off, losing three straight games and the series. The loss was an all-too-familiar reminder of the 2011 first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, where the Penguins were again a favored team with a 3-1 series lead, only to watch it slip away.
The Offseason – With another postseason run cut well short, drastic changes swept through the Pittsburgh organization in the offseason. The first of which was the firing of long-time general manager, Ray Shero. Shero built the 2009 Cup-winning team, but failed to change the roster to keep in line with the changing NHL trends since that time. Rather than spreading the payroll throughout the roster to obtain a deep, balanced lineup, Shero paid highly for top-tier players, leaving very little depth to work with.
Former Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford took over for Shero, and promptly fired head coach Dan Byslma. Byslma had seemingly lost the Pittsburgh lockerroom, something that was especially evident in last seasons’ playoffs. Rarely does one see a coach and a star player visibly argue on the bench in the middle of the game, but that is what happened between Byslma and Crosby in the series against the Rangers. After that, Byslma was living on borrowed time. Weeks into the offseason, Pittsburgh hired former assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Mike Johnston.
Aside from the change in management, the Penguins also changed parts of their roster. Their big free agent signing was defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff was one of the few bright spots on a terrible Buffalo Sabres squad, and after signing a one-year deal for $4 million, he should play a key part in Pittsburgh’s defense. Understanding that depth appears to be one of the biggest factors to success in today’s NHL, the Penguins also dealt winger James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal was a great goalscorer for the Penguins, but the organization dealt him away to use his $5 million cap space to make the team deeper.
What to Watch for This Season – There should not be many surprises for the Penguins this year. Crosby and Malkin will likely continue to dominate the scoring race, as they have since they entered the league. Pittsburgh will likely finish near the top of the Eastern Conference again, if not the No. 1 seed. What should be most interesting to see is how their new acquisitions affect the team’s style of play.
Hornqvist will likely never put up the 40 goals that Neal provided to the Penguins. However, he is still a solid goalscorer in his own right. The difference between Neal and Hornqvist is that the way they score could not be more different. While Neal had a nasty wrister and great speed, Hornqvist prefers the “dirty” areas in front of the net, leading to deflections and rebound chances. A constant presence in front of the net could be exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins need to return to their former glory.
Spaling could create some competition for third-line center Brandon Sutter. Sutter recently signed a two-year, $6.6 million contract extension with the Penguins, so between the new contract and a new player gunning for his position on the team, expect a solid, if unheralded, performance from the young center.
Finally, this may be the deciding year for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury’s struggles, mostly in the playoffs, are no secret to anyone around the league. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, his performance this year will determine how big of a raise he will earn from his current $5 million salary. It is also possible that the Penguins will let him walk, but without a solid replacement in the system, they will likely pay him whatever he asks for.
When Pittsburgh drafted Crosby and Malkin, it was assumed that they would eventually return to the dynasty days of Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis. When they made back-to-back Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, that only added evidence to that narrative. However, since then, the team has underachieved greatly. With the moves made this offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins are aiming for a return to glory.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow as 30 in 30 examines the San Jose Sharks. Also, check out yesterday’s team, the Philadelphia Flyers, and read how offense may not always be the answer.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner