Have the Pittsburgh Penguins Really Improved in the 2013 Offseason?

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Have the Pittsburgh Penguins Really Improved in the 2013 Offseason?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Penguins general manager Ray Shero

Angst is the overriding emotion in Pittsburgh after the Penguins' season ended in an ignominious sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.

Nobody is going to forget that debacle, but it's important to remember how well the Penguins played during the regular season when they finished in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 36-12-0 record.

They were the dominant team in the East for much of the year, and while the Chicago Blackhawks would finish with more regular-season points and ultimately win the Stanley Cup, it would be a stretch to say that any team has more talent up and down the lineup than the Penguins.

General manager Ray Shero has been busy locking up that talent for much of the offseason.

He has signed Evgeni Malkin (eight years, $76 million), Chris Kunitz (three years, $11.55 million) and Kris Letang (eight years, $58 million) to contract extensions. He also signed Pascal Dupuis to a new four-year, $15 million contract.

Shero was also able to sign former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi (four-year, $13.5 million), who had played with the Penguins from 2003 through 2009.

The Penguins are clearly an offensive juggernaut. That's their identity and it's not going to change as long as they have Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Malkin, Letang, Kunitz and Dupuis in the lineup.

However, offense is not enough to win a championship. While skill and puck possession are highly valued, the Penguins were quite vulnerable on the defensive end.

Letang is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He is not as strong on the defensive end, but his speed and instincts are good enough for him to make several positive plays on the defensive end.

Picking up Scuderi is an excellent move to help the Penguins' overall defense. He is smart, tough and plays his position very well. He is not flashy or fancy, and Shero was thrilled to get him back.

"I never thought we'd get Rob Scuderi back," Shero told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That was never on my radar. Things change pretty quickly."

The Penguins defense made a lot of mistakes in the postseason. That unit was first exposed in the first round by the New York Islanders. The Penguins gave the Islanders a lot of open ice in the offensive zone—particularly behind the net—and might have suffered a first-round exit if the Penguins hadn't been so strong on the offensive end.

The Ottawa Senators provided little opposition in the conference semifinal, but the Bruins punished the Penguins defense badly in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins defense closed ranks in Games 3 and 4, but the damage was done.

That's why Scuderi should help the Penguins quite a bit.

But there's one problem that Shero did not address to this point. Goaltending cost the Penguins badly in each of the last two postseasons and it doesn't appear that Shero is going to be able to do anything to improve it because the team has reached its spending limit.

According to CapGeek.com, the Penguins have less than $700,000 in cap space available. That's not going to help them find a goaltender who can help them win the Stanley Cup.

They have Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million) and Tomas Vokoun ($2 million) under contract for the 2013-14 season, but Shero is just fooling himself if he believes that those two are going to get the job done.

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Fleury has been disastrous in back-to-back postseasons. When the Penguins lost to the Flyers in the 2012 playoffs, Fleury had a 4.63 goals-against average and an .834 save percentage. It wasn't much better this year, as Fleury had a 3.52 GAA and an .883 save percentage in the postseason.

He was replaced by Vokoun in the first round when he gave up several shaky goals to the Islanders.

Vokoun helped the Pens finish off the Islanders and get past the Senators, but he was not good enough against the Bruins. When Vokoun was pulled in Game 2 against the Bruins, Fleury got another chance, but his performance remained shaky.

Fleury had been magical in goal when the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup, but he is no longer making big saves when the Penguins need them.

If Shero thinks that Fleury is going to recapture the form he had four years ago, he's just fooling himself at this point. It's one thing for a goalie to have a poor playoff year, but when he has two bad performances in a row, it's unlikely that he's ever going to return to form.

How could Shero or Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma ever trust him again?

The only thing the Penguins could do to upgrade the situation in net is trade Fleury for another goaltender at an equal or lesser salary.

A change of address could help Fleury quite a bit, but the Penguins could only get another goalie who has struggled or a prospect.

The chances that such a goalie would turn the Penguins' fortunes around is quite dubious. The Penguins may have another explosive regular season, but goaltending is their Achilles heel and it seems likely to surface again next year.

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