A New Direction: Early Predictions for Pittsburgh Penguins' 2014-15 Roster
Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins returned to the Consol Energy Center just one win away from a return trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
Since then, the Pens blew a 3-1 series lead for the second time in four years, fired their seemingly untouchable general manager and left head coach Dan Bylsma and the rest of his staff in coaching limbo.
As shocking as the Pens' postseason collapse may have been, the front office shakeup and the expected roster changes that may take place this summer figure to be even more shocking as Mario Lemieux and the rest of the ownership team try to close the book on the team's recent playoff failures.
While no one would have predicted just two weeks ago that the Pens would be watching the rest of the playoffs and looking for a new general manager, I'll try my hand at offering predictions for what the 2014-15 Penguins might look like.
Since the Penguins left the ice at the Consol Energy Center after their Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, a lot has been made about the need to add character, grit and speed to the roster, and the next general manager will have ample opportunity to do just that.
With just 14 players under contract for next season's 25-man roster, the Penguins will have spots to fill, and, assuming the cap is raised to $71 million as expected, around $16 million in cap space to fill them with.
While the Pens would like to re-sign both Jussi Jokinen and Matt Niskanen, their strong play both in the regular season and postseason may have priced them out of the Pens' reach.
To address the team's deficiencies in their bottom-six forwards and play the puck-pressure style that Mario Lemieux recently endorsed, players like Devin Setoguchi, Steve Ott and Mason Raymond might be attractive and low-cost options in free agency.
One interesting possibility is Nikolai Kulemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who has been a rumored target of the Pens in the past and is both a good friend and linemate of Evgeni Malkin on Team Russia.
Regardless of who takes over as the team's general manager, fans should expect the new front office to pursue grit more than skill in free agency as they look to make the Pens a tougher and a deeper team.
While in recent years, the big question was whether the Penguins could afford to keep their top players in Pittsburgh, this year it seems to be whether they can afford not to trade some of their big contracts in an effort to reshape the roster.
Having spent a lot of money in locking up James Neal and Kris Letang to long-term contracts, the Pens haven't gotten the postseason return they had hoped for, and that's why they are the two players most likely to be shopped around this summer.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2011, Neal has averaged 0.92 points per game in the regular season but just 0.58 points per game in the playoffs and has developed a bad habit of taking ill-advised penalties.
While no one should question Letang's heart after returning just months after a stroke, the reality is that he has struggled against physical teams and was pulled off of the top power-play unit due to turnovers.
One other possible trade candidate might be Brandon Sutter, who is a restricted free agent and reportedly seeking $4 million per season, which may be too high of a price for a third-line center.
While trading Sutter might be a big surprise to some, as he was one of the Pens' best forwards this postseason, his trade value will never be higher, and the Pens have other options to fill that role.
With the expected increase in the salary cap from $64 million to $71 million this year, teams may be more likely to acquire players in free agency starting on July 1, so if the Pens are going to pursue trades, look for it to happen at the NHL entry draft, which takes place June 27 and 28.
2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins' Goaltending
Coming off of his statistically best postseason since 2008, Marc-Andre Fleury has proven he is not the weak link his critics have made him out to be and he deserves to be the Penguins' starting goaltender next season.
While some might be quick to give you reasons why the Pens won't win the Stanley Cup with Fleury in net, they aren't as quick to give you a viable backup plan because, frankly, there isn't one.
The top goaltenders in free agency are likely going to command more than Fleury's $5 million cap hit, and the Pens' top goaltending prospects are at least a year away from being NHL-ready.
While the Pens could try to re-sign Tomas Vokoun or bring in a veteran like J.S. Giguere, it would likely cost around $2 million of the approximately $15 million they are expected to have in cap space.
For a team looking to change their philosophy and shake up their roster, spending that much on a backup goaltender wouldn't be a wise investment, especially when current backup Jeff Zatkoff played well last season.
If Fleury plays well next season, then the Pens will have good reason and sufficient cap space to re-sign him to an extension.
If Fleury struggles, the Pens could then pursue a replacement, as Ben Bishop, Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson will be free agents next summer.
Either way, the Pens' best bet is to trust Fleury has indeed turned the corner and focus on other needs.
2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins' Defensemen
Whether you are a fan or a critic of Ray Shero's tenure with the Penguins, there is no doubt he had a knack of drafting and developing young defensemen.
While Olli Maatta was able to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL this season and play well, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson also saw action with the big club, and Derrick Pouliot is viewed as NHL-ready.
With Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland set to become unrestricted free agents this summer and Kris Letang's salary-cap hit doubling as he starts his new contract, change is inevitable for the Pens' blue line.
Baring a trade or a buyout that would create enough cap space to re-sign Niskanen, the Pens' defensive pairings figured to be Paul Martin with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta with Derrick Pouliot and Rob Scuderi with Robert Bortuzzo.
Unfortunately, both Maatta and Pouliot are scheduled to be out for four to six months recovering from shoulder surgery, so that could open the door for Dumoulin, Samuelsson or Scott Harrington to win a spot in training camp.
That would leave restricted free agent Simon Despres on the outside looking in yet again, and Brooks Orpik's future is uncertain, as the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs will likely keep teams away.
With a wealth of talented defensemen waiting in the wings, the Pens are in good shape on the blue line, and it will be interesting to see how the ownership's desire for more grit and toughness impacts their defensive roster.
2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins' Forwards
Early in his tenure as the Penguins' general manager, Ray Shero often targeted grit and toughness in both trades and free agency, but that trend seemed to have been reversed in the past couple of seasons.
When the Pens won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they did so with gritty wingers like Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot playing on the top two lines.
Although the Pens' current top-six forwards are far more skilled, that skill hasn't translated into postseason success, and it's likely the Pens' top two lines will look different next season.
With Pascal Dupuis returning from a knee injury, the Pens should move Chris Kunitz to the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin as they did in 2012 when Malkin won the Hart and Art Ross trophies.
Moving Kunitz would create a spot for the Pens to bring in a physical winger who can provide a net-front presence and protection for Sidney Crosby on the top line.
Lee Stempniak played well in a third-line role, as did Beau Bennett, and they could fill those spots again, while Joe Vitale, Zach Sill and Jayson Megna could form the kind of pesky fourth line that the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers used effectively against the Pens.
A Pittsburgh Penguins Postmortem
Whether these projections prove to be accurate or not, one thing is clear: The Pittsburgh Penguins were not a deep team or a tough team to play against in 2013-14, and that has to change.
As was made clear during the postseason, the Pens were not fast enough to play an uptempo style, not big or physical enough to play a dump-and-chase style and not deep enough to survive a goal-scoring drought from their top players.
Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup despite the fact their captain and best player, Jonathan Toews, scored just three goals in 23 postseason games.
The reason why one team can win in the postseason when their best player is struggling to score and the other cannot is scoring depth; the Blackhawks have it, and the Pens do not.
If the last few years of Ray Shero's tenure have proven anything, it's that success in the regular season doesn't carry over to the postseason and that star-dependent and top-heavy teams don't win the Stanley Cup.
If the Penguins don't learn that lesson, it won't matter who the general manager or head coach will be.