Way-Too-Early Grades for the New Pittsburgh Penguins
Through the first two weeks of the 2013-2014 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have enjoyed a fast start (5-1), as some new faces—coupled with some old ones—have the Pens sitting atop the Metropolitan Division standings.
Having lost five players from last year's team in the offseason (Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Douglas Murray) and three others due to injury (James Neal, Kris Letang, Tomas Vokoun), the Pens have undergone a significant makeover.
Many in the hockey world were eager to see how this year's team would perform.
While the final judgement on whether the Pens' new additions performed up to expectations won't be made until next summer, let's take a look—albeit a premature one—at the newest Pens and grade their performance thus far.
Acquired by general manager Ray Shero to add speed and scoring depth to the bottom of the Penguins' forward rotation, Matt D'Agostini was expected to have an impact on the ice.
Unfortunately, due to a lower body injury suffered early on in training camp, the only impact D'Agostini has had is on the trainers' table in the Pens' locker room and on a seat in the press box.
In his absence, fellow free agent Chuck Kobasew has performed well in the role that Shero probably had envisioned for D'Agostini, so there is not going to be a lot of ice time when he does return.
While it is going to be a long season and there will be opportunities for him to show the grit and skill that the Pens are looking for, D'Agostini will be competing for ice time with Dustin Jeffrey, Craig Adams, Joe Vitale and Kobasew.
This may prove too big of a task for even a former 20-goal scorer.
When you are the backup goaltender for a star-studded team like the Penguins, you don't have to be an exclamation mark. You just need to not be a question mark.
Unfortunately, Jeff Zatkoff's play in a 6-3 loss to the Florida Panthers raises questions as to whether he can hold down the fort until Tomas Vokoun is able to return to the ice.
With top-notch goaltending prospects like Eric Hartzell, Matt Murray and 2014 second-round pick Tristan Jarry waiting in the wings for their opportunity and with Zatkoff entering the last year of his contract, he can't afford to lose the confidence of the coaching staff or management if he is to avoid the dreaded label of "career minor leaguer."
Fortunately for Zatkoff, CapGeek.com indicates that the Pens have very little remaining cap space, which limits their ability to bring in free agents.
However, Shero has shown a willingness and knack for making deals to address team needs. He will not hesitate to do so again if Zatkoff struggles and Marc-Andre Fleury has to bear too much of the goaltending burden.
Having been forced to trade Tyler Kennedy to the San Jose Sharks to clear cap space at last summer's NHL draft, Shero knew he needed to add speed, grit and a right-handed shot to the roster.
He found all three in Chuck Kobasew.
After being invited to training camp for a tryout, Kobasew was able to earn a roster spot with a strong preseason and signed a one-year, $550,000 contract.
Thus far, Kobasew has continued his strong play and earned the trust of head coach Dan Bylsma. Pittsburgh's head coach has used him up and down the lineup, including on both the power-play and penalty-killing units.
While it is still early in the season and his opportunities may decrease when James Neal and Matt D'Agostini return from injuries, Kobasew has tallied two goals, is a plus-two and has averaged more than 13 minutes of gritty and defensively sound hockey in each game thus far.
Ever since he was drafted with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, Olli Maatta has been on the fast track to a spot on the Penguins' blue line.
While the assumption was that Maatta's NHL debut would be delayed by the Pens' defensive depth, his strong training camp—combined with injuries and Simon Despres' struggles—created an opportunity and he has seized it with both hands.
Although only 19 years of age, Maatta has looked like an NHL veteran and even drawn comparisons to Sergei Gonchar for his steady puck-handling and smart decision-making.
Since Maatta is allowed to play only nine games in the NHL without starting the clock on his contract, the Pens' management and coaching staff have a dilemma on their hands.
Based on his play, the choice is between making the wise business decision—sending Maatta down—or the wise hockey decision—keeping him in Pittsburgh.
As smart, mobile defensemen are at a premium in the NHL, I have a feeling that the Pens will choose the latter.
In early July, Shero told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the decision to let Rob Scuderi leave in 2009 was one that he has regretted ever since.
Fortunately, he was able to correct that mistake and signed Scuderi to a four-year, $13.5 million contract this past summer to bring stability to the Pens' blue line.
Although his eventual partner, Kris Letang, has yet to see the ice due to injury, Scuderi has had an immediate and profound impact.
Through six games, Scuderi is a plus-six and averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. He's currently playing alongside Matt Niskanen, who has benefited immensely from Scuderi's presence.
While many were surprised that the Pens would want or even could afford to bring Scuderi back, the returns on the investment have far outweighed the financial cost, as he has been every bit the player Shero regretted losing years ago.