Complete Guide to the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2014 Offseason
For the fifth consecutive season, the Penguins were bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs by a lower-seeded team. They squandered a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series for the second time in four years, losing Game 7 on home ice each time. It's also the third time in five years that the Penguins lost Game 7 on home ice.
Changes are coming. Some are obvious, and some are speculative, but they are coming.
How will this perennial 100-point team go about its business now that its season is over? Click through this slideshow to find out.
Top Performers: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were the engine of this team, and they came through all season. Crosby (36 goals, 104 points) will likely win the Hart Trophy, while Malkin (23 goals, 72 points) was dominant despite missing 22 games to injury. Chris Kunitz finished second to Crosby with 35 goals, and Jussi Jokinen had 21 goals in 81 games. Matt Niskanen was a revelation on defense with 10 goals and 46 points, as nearly every key defenseman was hit with a serious injury at some point in the season.
Biggest Disappointments: The Penguins lost more man-games to injury that any team in the NHL. Aside from that disappointment, Brandon Sutter with 13 goals in 81 games hurt the Penguins from a secondary scoring perspective. Rob Scuderi had zero goals in 53 games but more importantly looked like his best days as a solid defenseman are behind him.
Final Assessment: It's the same story as last season and many seasons past: The Penguins are top-heavy with stars who can produce but lack the forward depth to be a true contender in the playoffs. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was average and one of the biggest reasons this team hasn't won a Stanley Cup the past three years.
Biggest Storylines to Follow
Will Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero be fired: This seems inevitable after this year's collapse against a New York Rangers team that was ripe for a knockout punch after falling behind 3-1 in the series. Bylsma was on thin ice after the Penguins were swept in the conference final last year, and that ice will likely crack in the coming days or weeks.
Shero probably has a better chance of surviving, as general managers always seem to find a way to survive the ax longer than their coaches. But this team had holes that weren't filled by Shero, which makes him just as culpable as Bylsma.
What to do with Marc-Andre Fleury: Well, what the team should do is buy him out. He has one year and $5 million remaining on a contract that should be doused in gasoline and lit on fire. Sure, he wasn't the monstrosity in net this postseason like he was the previous two, but he was still average at best and inconsistent at all times. With pending unrestricted free agents Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak and Jonas Hiller potentially available, the Penguins must bring one of them to Pittsburgh.
Are any of those goaltenders guaranteed to win a Cup in Pittsburgh? Of course not. But owner Mario Lemieux has to know for a fact at this point that Fleury can't do it, so another direction must be taken.
Should the Penguins trade Kris Letang: Due to Shero's poor drafting of forwards since 2006, the team is sorely lacking in that category. The Penguins are loaded on defense, so dealing Letang makes a lot of sense from the standpoint that he would fetch the biggest return of anyone on the roster. His eight-year, $58 million contract begins next season, as does his no-trade clause, so the time to move him in the right deal is now.
Notable Players Hitting Free Agency
Matt Niskanen: The 27-year-old picked the perfect time to have a breakout season, as he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He had career highs in goals (10) and points (46) and will be the most coveted defenseman on the free-agent market. He could command a salary of about $6 million per season, as general managers tend to overpay for free-agent defensemen. The Penguins have a difficult decision to make on him and may need to trade someone to free the cap space to retain him.
Jussi Jokinen: Since acquiring him for a song (and not even a good song, a Gotye song) from the Carolina Hurricanes last year, Jokinen has been outstanding. He has 28 goals in 91 regular-season games with the Penguins and had a team-leading seven goals in 13 games during the 2014 postseason. He has worked well on the wing of Evgeni Malkin, and since the Penguins are devoid of forward talent behind their big guns, keeping Jokinen should be a priority.
Others: F Lee Stempniak, F Brandon Sutter (RFA), F Marcel Goc, D Brooks Orpik, D Simon Despres (RFA), G Tomas Vokoun, F Tanner Glass, F Joe Vitale
Top Free-Agent Targets
The Penguins, as is their thing, need third- and fourth-line wingers who aren't dead weight and can alleviate some of the scoring pressure from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. There are plenty of those on the free-agent market every summer, but they usually come with a steep price tag. But here are two players whom they should target about eight seconds after using an amnesty buyout on Marc-Andre Fleury.
Ryan Miller, G: He disappointed in his short stay with St. Louis, but he's a better option at this point than Fleury. Miller's potential cap hit should fall around the same area as what Fleury would have next year ($5 million), so it would be a wise investment for the Penguins.
Jaroslav Halak, G: His rights are currently owned by the New York Islanders, but there's nothing stopping him from testing free agency. He might be even more motivated than ever after the Blues jettisoned him in favor of Miller and watched his replacement post a .897 save percentage in a six-game loss to the Blackhawks.
Best Options in the NHL Draft
Considering the Penguins have one pick (a first-rounder) in the first 114 picks of next year's draft, there aren't a whole lot of options for this team. Ray Shero dealt away the team's second- and third-round picks in 2013 to acquire Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks and Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames.
Based on the mock draft of NHL.com's Mike G. Morreale, the Penguins could expect to see these players available when it's their turn to pick in the 2014 draft.
Ivan Barbashev: He's Russian, big and physical and can play on the left wing. It sounds like a nice addition for a team that already has Evgeni Malkin.
Nikita Scherbak: Another Russian-born winger, he had 78 points in 65 games with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL this season. The fact he came over to North America to play junior hockey bodes well for his draft status, as he seems dedicated to playing in the NHL as opposed to the KHL.
David Pastrnak: The Czech forward has played well in the Swedish Elite League. He lacks size (5'9", 150 lbs) but has speed and skill.
Players Who Should Be Put on the Trading Block
Kris Letang: As previously stated, the Penguins are thin up front and deep in the back, which could make Letang expendable. He's a gifted playmaker and skater who can quarterback a power play, but he lost that job to Matt Niskanen on the first unit in the postseason. Even with his eight-year, $58 million contract set to begin next season, he's the best trade chip the Penguins possess.
There will be talk of trading Evgeni Malkin this summer, but it's farcical to think the Penguins can deal perhaps the second-best player in the world and fetch anything of equal value in return.
Top Trade Targets
Ryan Kesler: There was talk that the Penguins and Vancouver Canucks had a deal in place at the trade deadline, per Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but ownership in Vancouver nixed it. The Canucks remain in flux and lacks a coach and general manager right now, so this could be revisited depending on who takes those jobs. Kesler would give the Penguins that missing No. 2 or No. 3 center, depending on if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are together or separate.
Jason Spezza: He has one year and $7 million remaining on his contract and would be a short-term fix to the Penguins' forward issues. According to Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos, the Senators are reportedly interested in trading Spezza, so this could be a match if they get youth in return. Spezza has had back issues and may not be a great fit for the Penguins, but if the Senators are willing to eat some of his salary, a deal could be reached.
Prospects Most Likely to Debut in 2014-15
Derrick Pouliot: He was named the WHL's defenseman of the year for 2013-14 and could win a spot on the roster to start 2014-15. He's an offensive dynamo who had 70 points in 58 regular-season games and 32 points in 21 postseason games for the Portland Winterhawks. With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen as free agents and Kris Letang as potential trade bait, there should be room for Pouliot in Pittsburgh next season.
Brian Dumoulin: Another highly rated defenseman, Dumoulin played six NHL games this season when the Penguins were ravaged by injuries. While Pouliot is more gifted offensively, Dumoulin is the bigger, stronger defenseman who can become a shutdown type in the NHL. He's probably the best bet of any of the prospects to make the team out of training camp, but much of that will be determined by the team's activity this summer.
Josh Archibald: A forward at Nebraska-Omaha, he could help to fill the Penguins' need among their bottom-six forwards. The problem here is he remains unsigned, but there are no indications that he won't join the Penguins next season. Assuming that happens, he may not be with the team to open the season, but he could be a contributor at some point next season.
Projected 2014-15 Depth Chart
The Penguins have 14 pending unrestricted free agents this summer, so projecting their 2014-15 lineup is about as difficult as it gets. So take this with a grain of salt.
- Chris Kunitz—Sidney Crosby—Pascal Dupuis
- Jussi Jokinen—Evgeni Malkin—James Neal
- Brian Gibbons—Brandon Sutter—Beau Bennett
- Jayson Megna—Craig Adams—Joe Vitale
- Spares: Free-agent forwards
- Paul Martin—Kris Letang
- Olli Maatta—Matt Niskanen
- Rob Scuderi—Robert Bortuzzo
- Spare: Brian Dumoulin
- Ryan Miller
- Jeff Zatkoff