5 Roster Needs That the Pittsurgh Penguins Must Address
Following the firing of both their general manager and head coach after yet another postseason collapse, the Pittsburgh Penguins now look ahead to the next phase of the offseason with both the NHL entry draft and the start of the NHL's free-agent frenzy less than a month away.
With just 14 of their 25 roster spots currently filled, the Pens will have a lot of work to do between now and the start of training camp.
They have a lot of questions to answer, so the next month promises to be as eventful—if not more so—than the last month has been.
As newly appointed general manager Jim Rutherford begins his much-anticipated overhaul of the Pens' roster, let's take a look at five key roster needs that must be addressed before the start of the 2014-15 regular season.
If the Penguins learned one lesson from their struggles against the Columbus Blue Jackets and their collapse against the New York Rangers this postseason, it should be the importance of having a fourth line that can neutralize the opposition's top players and also contribute offensively.
In both series, the Pens' fourth line was a non-factor that caused matchup issues.
In order to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, the Pens must become a true four-line team.
The first step would be to settle on a fourth-line center who can win key faceoffs, set the tone with aggressive forechecking and also take some of the offensive burden off the top two lines.
Fortunately, the Pens have some in-house candidates with Joe Vitale—who played well in his limited opportunities this postseason—Zach Sill—who has the requisite speed and grit for the job—and Harry Zolnierczyk—who was inexplicably left in the AHL after a strong early-season audition.
Having become known for their three-center model under Ray Shero, the Pens need to expand that blueprint with the addition of a fourth center who can contribute more than the occasional fight if they want to compete with the NHL's more physical teams.
Having survived a do-or-die challenge in the 2013-14 season, Marc-Andre Fleury's job should be safe. According to InsidePittsburghSports.com, that doesn't seem to be the case.
With one year remaining on his contract and coming off his best year since the 2007-08 season, Fleury will be looking for an extension. However, the Pens' plan seems to be to let him play out his contract and see where he is next summer since there isn't much trade interest in him at the moment.
If that is indeed the plan, then it becomes all the more important to upgrade the backup goaltender spot with someone who, if the Pens do part with Fleury, could bridge the gap until their prospects are ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Although Jeff Zatkoff had a solid year, it's doubtful that he can push Fleury for playing time and handle the starting job, at least at this point.
Therefore, bringing in a veteran like Jonas Hiller, Ilya Bryzgalov or Jonas Gustavsson would give the Pens leverage if they decide to re-sign Fleury or an alternative if they do not.
With big names like Cory Schneider, Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop scheduled to be free agents next year, the Pens would be best served to bring in a backup on a two-year deal—as they did with Tomas Vokoun—and see if Fleury has truly turned the corner.
There was a time not too long ago when the Penguins had the best third line in the NHL with Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
Unfortunately, the reality of the NHL's salary-cap era put an end to that.
Having been forced to trade away Staal and Kennedy while allowing Cooke to leave in free agency, the Pens got very little production from their third line this past season—Brandon Sutter's strong play notwithstanding—and that must be addressed.
One of the ways to address that need would be to re-sign Lee Stempniak, who played well alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but whose speed and grit are best suited for a third-line role.
In regard to free agents, former 30-goal scorer Devin Setoguchi would be a good addition, provided that his asking price is not too high.
Another option would be to move Pascal Dupuis down to the third line to play alongside Sutter, which would give the Pens three dangerous lines.
While it may be unrealistic to think that the Pens will ever have as good a third line as they did with Staal, Cooke and Kennedy, there's no reason why they can't put together a fast, gritty and offensively capable one for next season.
While the Penguins may be one of the most skilled teams—if not the most skilled team—in the NHL, they are definitely not one of the most physical or abrasive teams in the league.
That has to change.
When compared to the great Pens teams of the early '90s, which had sandpaper players like Ulf Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens and Bryan Trottier, this Pens team seems to be lacking in grit.
According to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that may have played a role in the decision to replace Shero as GM.
With just seven forwards signed currently for the 2014-15 season, the Pens will have holes to fill. With rugged players like Steve Ott, Steve Downie and Shawn Thornton available in free agency, they will have the opportunity to add toughness and grit to what is already a talented roster.
Having watched their superstars absorb a lot of punishment at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers in the playoffs, Pens ownership must be committed to ensuring that doesn't happen again.
Adding hard-nosed players who can and will push back is a must this offseason.
Power Forward on Top Line
In each of the last two postseasons, the Penguins' downfall could be attributed to one thing: the lack of a net-front presence to create space for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While some of the blame for this lies with a lack of emphasis on the part of the coaching staff and a lack of willingness on the part of the players, the fact is that the Pens aren't built to consistently get to the opposition's net.
While the probable Stanley Cup champs'—the Los Angeles Kings—average frame is 6' 2" and 207 pounds among forwards and they use that size to wear teams down, the Pens' forwards barely average 6' 0" and 200 pounds.
They struggled against bigger defensive units like those of the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
Without a power forward prospect on the horizon, the Pens will have to look outside the organization for free agents like the 6' 4", 247-pound Dustin Penner or pursue a trade for players like Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane or Blake Wheeler, who have been linked to the Pens by Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press.
Regardless of where they might find one, the Pens need to add a power forward to their top-six rotation.
Without a Kevin Stevens- or Bill Guerin-type of player causing havoc in front of the opponent's goaltender, they will continue to see their stars neutralized and relegated to the perimeter in the playoffs.
Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.