The 5 Most Promising Signs for Pittsburgh Penguins' Future
Having endured a tumultuous offseason followed by a seemingly endless string of major injuries to key players, the Pittsburgh Penguins have not only weathered the storm but are once again among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
While players and fans understandably look ahead to this year's postseason, it's important to remember that, for an organization to be successful, it must have an outlook broader than simply one game, one series or even one season.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the five most promising sings for the Pittsburgh Penguins' future.
Goaltending No Longer an Issue
Before the start of the 2014-15 season, the biggest question mark for the Penguins was their precarious goaltending situation.
With Marc-Andre Fleury coming off of another disastrous postseason performance, Tomas Vokoun's indefinite loss due to blood clots and with an unproven backup in Jeff Zatkoff, who had never played a single game at the NHL level, the situation was bleak.
Fortunately for the Pens, their goaltending has proven to be more than up to the task as Fleury has had a resurgence under new position coach Mike Bales, Vokoun has returned to the ice and Zatkoff has quietly become one of the top backup goaltenders in the league.
While there are concerns about Fleury's excessive workload, the Pens goaltending has gone from a liability to a strength in a relatively short period of time and, with highly regarded prospects Eric Hartzell, Matthew Murray and Tristan Jarry in the system, figures to remain so for the foreseeable future.
NHL-Ready Talent Waiting in the Wings
While most NHL teams seem to be either rebuilding by acquiring prospects or retooling their roster by trading away prospects, the Penguins, under the leadership of Ray Shero, have been able to successfully balance the present and the future.
Despite usually drafting near the bottom of the first round over the last decade and having dealt early-round picks in blockbuster trades, the Pens still have managed to amass a strong group of NHL-ready prospects, especially on defense.
With Olli Mattaa now a fixture in the Pens lineup and with Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson having already seen their first NHL action this season, the Pens future blue-line corps seems set with both Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington looking to make the jump to the NHL possibly next season.
Although they, as of yet, do not have a top-six forward on the way, with five of their top-six forwards signed through 2017, the Pens won't be forced to look outside their organization for help like a lot of teams will have to do.
Salary Cap Increase for 2014-15 Season
For an organization that, for years, was forced to watch its best players leave due to financial constraints, the Pittsburgh Penguins have certainly come full circle.
Since the NHL created its current salary structure in 2005, the Pens have consistently been at or near the salary cap.
Having doled out more than $69 million dollars this year (which includes players on injured reserve), they are once again the NHL's biggest spender.
After being squeezed by last summer's cap reduction to $64 million, Pens general manager Ray Shero will have more room to work with as next year's cap is expected to jump to $71.1 million.
With 11 impending unrestricted free agents on the roster, the Pens will have some decisions to make but, considering that five of their top-six forwards and three of their top-four defensemen are already under contract for next season, they won't have to make wholesale changes like some teams.
Return of the Three-Center Model?
When Ray Shero, unable to resign Jordan Staal, was forced to trade him to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, it was obvious that it was a trade he didn't want to make.
Now, however, it seems as though he may have an opportunity to essentially undo that regretful, yet necessary, deal as he looks to bring Ryan Kesler to Pittsburgh this summer.
In addition, the Canucks' ownership will likely be more willing to make the deal then having weathered the Roberto Luongo saga and the accusations by fans that the team was giving up on the season while still in playoff contention.
For his part, Kesler, despite public denials from both he and general manager Mike Gillis, seems to be looking to move and Pittsburgh is reportedly at the top of his wish list.
As a former Selke Trophy winner who can play both wing and center and has two years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $5 million, a trade for Kesler makes sense from both a financial and a hockey standpoint, especially when the expectation that Brandon Sutter will be looking for $4 million per year in his next contract is factored in.
Given Shero's penchant for making blockbuster deals and his widely known desire to return to the three-center model that the Pens employed when then won the Stanley Cup with in 2009, if Kesler isn't wearing black and gold on opening night next season, it won't be for lack of effort on his part.
Outlook Is Bleak for Divisional Rivals
While a lot of Penguins fans worried before the season that winning the new Metropolitan Division would be a difficult feat to accomplish, those fears have proven to be unfounded.
Through 68 games, the Pens are 15 points ahead of the rest of the division and, looking ahead to next season, they figure to be at the top of the standings as each of the rest of the divisional opponents have major issues to deal with.
Heading into free agency, both the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals will have less cap space than the Pens and while the New York Rangers will have slightly more money to spend, they only have 13 players under contract for 25 roster spots next season.
On the other end of the spectrum, the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets will each have significant cap space but also will have a combined 18 unrestricted free agents and 13 restricted free agents to decide on, and will most likely have a significant amount of player turnover.
Having re-signed their core group of players, cap space to fill potential needs as well as, according to scouts, the second best group of prospects in the division behind only the New York Islanders, the Pens are in the best shape of any team in the division, which will likely keep them at the top of the standings for the foreseeable future.