Early Projection for Pittsburgh Penguins' 2013-14 Depth Chart
Less than a week after the NHL Entry Draft and the start of the free-agency signing period, the Pittsburgh Penguins are already a different team.
With key players such as Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis looking for new contracts and with the reduction in the salary cap for next season, down from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, Pens players and fans had to know that roster changes were inevitable.
While the Pens were able to retain Letang and Dupuis, they were forced to say goodbye to others. Gone are Jarome Iginla (Boston Bruins) and Matt Cooke (Minnesota Wild) via free agency as well as Tyler Kennedy (San Jose Sharks) via trade.
While other members of last year's team such as Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray are still available, there simply isn't enough money to go around.
Having just completed the first month of what figures to be an important summer for the Pittsburgh Penguins, let's take a look at their current depth chart.
With Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz each signed for the next four seasons, it's assumed that they, along with Sidney Crosby, will comprise the Penguins' top line.
Pens' head coach Dan Bylsma has been hesitant to break up this line even when many, including myself, believed that Jarome Iginla should have been playing on Crosby's right side after he was acquired at the trade deadline.
However, the emergence of Beau Bennett creates some interesting possibilities for the Pens. As noted by Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bylsma has publicly stated that Bennett will be a "top-six forward" next season.
Given that both Bennett and James Neal are more comfortable playing on the right side, it stands to reason that Bylsma intends to give Bennett a shot to play alongside Crosby on the first line.
Assuming that Beau Bennett is inserted on the first line with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, Dan Bylsma would then be able to play Chris Kunitz alongside James Neal and Evgeni Malkin on the second line.
In the 2011-2012 season, Kunitz, Neal and Malkin comprised the best line in the league, and Malkin won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.
Coming off a down year by his standards and having signed an eight-year extension, Malkin will be looking to rebound and once again challenge for the Hart and Art Ross trophies.
Playing him on a line alongside Kunitz and Neal, two talented goal scorers who know how to find shooting lanes as well as the back of the net, might help Evgeni Malkin do just that.
From 2008 until 2012, the Penguins boasted the best third line in the NHL with Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
Having been forced to trade away Staal before last season, Pens GM Ray Shero decided to completely disband the line, and traded Kennedy to San Jose and allowed Cooke to leave for Minnesota in free agency.
Although the Pens' third line will not be as flashy as in previous years, it does have the potential to be just as effective.
Given the current roster, the most likely combination is Brandon Sutter at center with Jussi Jokinen and Tanner Glass on the wings, but Dustin Jeffrey remains a possibility, as does recent acquisition Harry Zolnierczyk.
Without any forward prospects expected to make the jump to the NHL, don't be surprised to see the Pens bring in a free agent if they can clear some cap space by making a trade.
While the Penguins' third line is a question mark, the fourth line is not.
Having re-signed with the Pens for two more seasons, Craig Adams will once again be counted on to contribute grit and tenacity on both the fourth line and the penalty-killing unit.
In addition, Joe Vitale will look to become a more reliable contributor and avoid being benched for long stretches as he was last season.
That leaves one wing spot for, most likely, Dustin Jeffrey. While he may not be the tenacious forechecker that teams usually look for in fourth-line players, his versatility and offensive ability make him an intriguing option.
With just 20 players signed to NHL or two-way contracts, three shy of the maximum allowable, expect the Pens to look to acquire more depth players through free agency.
First Defense Pairing
At the end of last season, Kris Letang was being hailed as a Norris Trophy candidate and one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game.
After struggling at times in the playoffs, those accolades were replaced by criticisms due to Letang's lack of production on the power play and his struggles in his own end.
While many expected that the Pens would be forced to trade Letang, Ray Shero was able to sign him to an eight-year, cap-friendly contract.
Lining up alongside Letang will be the newly reacquired Rob Scuderi, who returns to the Pens after signing a four-year deal with the L.A. Kings in 2009.
Due to his strong and steady defensive play, Scuderi is the ideal partner for an offensive-minded defenseman. and his presence will allow Letang to showcase his offensive abilities and once again challenge for the Norris Trophy.
Second Defense Pairing
Another beneficiary of Scuderi's presence will be Paul Martin, who will now be free to assume more of an offensive role and will most likely be paired with Brooks Orpik.
After struggling to fit into his new role with the Pens after signing a five-year, $25 million contract in 2010, Martin rebounded with a strong showing this past season and at times was the Pens' best defenseman.
Orpik, having carried the mantel as the Pens' only shutdown defenseman since Hal Gill left, also figures to benefit from Scuderi's return.
Known earlier in his career as a big hitter and still remembered for a monstrous shift against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Orpik has seen his ice time increase, from 17 minutes a game in 2008 to more than 22 minutes a game this season.
As a soon-to-be 33-year-old defenseman entering the final year of his contract, Orpik will benefit from a decreased workload and will be free to return to the hard-hitting style of his younger days.
Third Defense Pairing
After an up and down season, Simon Despres figures to a take the next step in his development and will begin the season on the Penguins' third defense pairing.
As Menendez of the Post-Gazzette noted, Bylsma's already tabbed Despres as a "top-four defenseman." Despres will be expected to be a more consistent player and an every-game contributor.
While the assumption is that Matt Niskanen will also be a part of the third pairing, there's a good chance that he will be dealt before the start of the regular season.
With one year remaining on his contract that carries a $2.3 million cap hit, Niskanen may be too expensive to keep.
Since Deryk Engelland is signed for this season at just $500K and Robert Bortuzzo is expected to sign for a similar amount, the Pens have enough depth on their blue line and might be better served to spend the money Niskanen will make on another third- or fourth-line forward.
Whether or not Niskanen is traded, the Pens have three vacant roster spots remaining and only $676K of cap space remaining. Logic says that a trade is coming.
While there was rampant speculation that the Penguins would either buy out or trade Marc-Andre Fleury this summer, neither happened.
As a result, the Pens will enter the next season the same way they entered last season, with Fleury as the starter and with their fingers crossed that he can overcome three straight playoff collapses.
While many in Pittsburgh were ready to kick Fleury to the curb and anoint Tomas Vokoun as the starter next season, that isn't going to happen.
Vokoun was spectacular in the playoffs and should be credited with the Pens getting to the Eastern Conference Final. However, he is 37 and entering the final year of his contract.
Regardless how well he played, Vokoun is not a long-term solution. At best, he is a temporary fix until a prospect such as Eric Hartzell or the Pens' top pick this year, Tristan Jarry, is ready to step in.
Marc-Andre Fleury knows that he is another playoff collapse away from being traded or bought out. While Pens fans are hoping that he can turn it around, Ray Shero's decision not to trade him means that the organization believes that he will.
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