The Biggest Question Mark on Each Pittsburgh Penguins Line for 2013-14 Season
Having gone through a tumultuous regular season with injuries and trades, a disappointing postseason with a sweep by the Boston Bruins and a surprising offseason with important re-signings, the Pittsburgh Penguins approach another season looking to replace regret with optimism.
Now that the draft is over and free agency questions have been answered, it's time for the Pens and their fans to ask new questions; questions not about what last year's team could have been but what this year's team will be.
With that in mind, let's look at the top questions on each line and defensive pairing.
First Line: Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis
Unfortunately, they were completely neutralized in the Eastern Conference Finals due to either their unwillingness or inability to get to the net against the Boston Bruins.
To add insult to injury, most Pens fans, including myself, assumed that the Pens had acquired Jarome Iginla last season to provide Sidney Crosby with a linemate who can get to the net, something he hasn’t had since Bill Guerin retired in 2010. Surprisingly, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma opted to play Iginla on the second line, out of position, on the left side.
Going into this season, the question for the first line will be: Are they willing able to get to the front of the net and score ugly goals, or will they be content to play on the perimeter as they did against the Bruins?
Since the Pens should have little or no trouble in the regular season, that question won’t be answered until the start of the playoffs next year.
Second Line: Bennett-Malkin-Neal
If the Pens first line was the team’s most-dangerous line, the Pens second line was undoubtedly the-most-tinkered-with line.
While Evgeni Malkin and James Neal were tied at the hip for the entire regular season and postseason, there seemed to be a game of musical chairs going on at the left wing position with Matt Cooke, Dustin Jeffrey, Beau Bennett, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla all filling that spot.
As a result, Malkin never really got comfortable with both his linemates, and that was reflected in his disappointing stats. Registering only nine goals in 31 games, Malkin would have been projected to score only 24 goals over a full season, the lowest goal output of his career.
The question for the Pens second line is whether Beau Bennett, or possibly Jussi Jokinen, will show enough chemistry with Malkin to help him rebound.
If not, Dan Byslma may be forced to move Chris Kunitz down to the second line and break up his preferred first line, something he was loath to do last season.
Third Line: Jokinen-Sutter-D’Agostini
From 2008 until 2012, the Pens had probably the best third line in the NHL in Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.
With Matt Cooke signing on with the Minnesota Wild and the trade of Tyler Kennedy to the San Jose Sharks, the Pens will need to retool their third line in the hopes that it performs up to the level that the previous one did.
Having signed Matt D’Agostini to a one year deal and with Jussi Jokinen, dubbed the “Finnish army knife” for his versatility by former Pen Phil Borque, returning for the final year of his three-year contract, the Pens will be looking to the third line to not only provide speed and a consistent forecheck but also contribute offensively.
To complicate matters, the Pens coaching staff may decide that Beau Bennett is not ready for a top-six role and move him down to the third line. In addition, the Pens are currently a little more than $1 million over the salary cap, and Jussi Jokinen (making $2.1 million this year) has been mentioned as a possible trade candidate to clear salary.
With all of these variables, the question for the third line, whoever is on it, is whether they will be able to produce enough offensively to take pressure off of the top two lines.
If not, the Pens may not have the cap space or the assets to bring in help.
Fourth Line: Glass-Vitale-Adams
At the end of last season’s playoff run, both Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale were regulars in the press box as healthy scratches.
Entering this season, they, along with Craig Adams will be counted on to be steady contributors both at even strength and on the penalty kill. Since the work stoppage wiped out the first half of the schedule, the Pens could load up on ice time for the first and second lines.
This year, with the return to a full 82-game schedule plus a two-week break for the Olympic tournament, head coach Dan Bylsma will have to approach the schedule as a marathon rather than a sprint and must be careful to not burn out his stars early in the season.
That’s why the question for the fourth line will be: Can they consistently play the up-tempo style that the Pens like to employ and relieve the stars from having to help with the penalty kill?
If they can’t, the Pens will run the risk of being a tired hockey team down the stretch and entering the playoffs.
First Defense Pair: Scuderi-Letang
Through the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, Kris Letang looked like a Norris Trophy winner.
During the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins, Letang looked more like an indecisive rookie who was struggling to make smart decisions. It was clear that he needed a rock-solid blue-line partner who would be a steadying influence.
Fortunately for the Pens, one such player was available in Rob Scuderi, the former Pen who was dubbed “The Piece” for his timely heroics as a member of the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pens squad. Scuderi had signed with LA Kings in the summer of 2009 after the Pens had decided not to match the Kings offer, a move Ray Shero has since said he has regretted.
If Scuderi can be the steadying influence in 2013 that he was in 2009, it will allow Kris Letang to be the offensive force, both in the regular season and postseason, that he was for much of last year.
If he can’t, Letang’s postseason struggles may continue, and the Pens will once again be faced with an early exit from the playoffs.
Second Defense Pair: Orpik-Martin
After the Penguins suffered a disappointing defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs in 2010, GM Ray Shero decided that the Pens needed to add youth and more mobility to the blue line.
Unwilling to give the 36-year-old Sergei Gonchar the three-year deal he was looking for, Shero instead chose to sign former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin to a 5 year/$25 million contract to fill that role. After the first two years of that deal, it seemed like Shero had made the wrong choice as Martin struggled to fill the shoes left by the popular and accomplished Gonchar.
While many Pens fans began to beg for Shero to trade Martin, Shero declined and Martin dedicated himself to turning his career around, responding with a breakout year in 2013. Having found chemistry with blue-line partner Brooks Orpik, and with the return of Rob Scuderi to relieve him of some defensive responsibility, Martin will be in prime position to have another great season.
However, the question for this defense pairing is whether Martin and Orpik, both 32 years of age, will wear down over a full 82-game schedule especially in Dan Bylsma's up-tempo system.
If the Pens can find ways to keep their minutes down to a manageable level, Martin and Orpik could be a very effective pairing. If, however, they have too much of a burden placed upon them, their age may catch up with them.
Third Defense Pair: Despres-Niskanen
Since he was taken in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Simon Despres has been on the fast track to being a star at the NHL level.
However, for all of his promise, that train seemed to slow down at the end of last season after Despres seemed to lose the trust of the coaching staff. As a result, he rarely saw the ice at the end of the regular season and was only dressed for three of the teams 15 playoff games.
If Simon Despres is to continue his development, the coaching staff must be willing to make him a regular in the lineup and give him consistent minutes on the ice.
Fortunately, the return of Rob Scuderi will allow the Pens to keep Despres as part of the third pairing along with Matt Niskanen, in order to give him enough ice time for him to grow as a player but not so much ice time that his growing pains exact too high a price on the Pens.
If Niskanen and Despres can strike a balance between employing their skills and eliminating mistakes, the Pens could very well have one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL.
However, if they struggle to find chemistry together, the Pens may be forced to shuffle their defense pairings or bring in another defenseman, something that may be difficult to do with the reduced salary cap this season.
Healthy Scratches: Jeffrey, Bortuzzo, Engelland
For those wondering where Robert Bortuzzo, Deryk Engelland and Dustin Jeffrey fit in to this year's team, that remains to be seen.
While all of the forward lines and defensive pairings are just conjecture at this point, one thing that is certain is that the Pens, currently a little more than $1 million over the salary cap, need to make a move by the start of the regular season.
Given that each are in the last year of their contracts and their salaries, Jussi Jokinen ($2.1 million) and Matt Niskanen ($2.3 million) seem to be the most likely trade candidates but there's no telling what Pens GM Ray Shero has up his sleeve.
With less than a month to go before the start of training camp, Penguins fans will just have to wait and see how these questions are answered.