Predicting the Pittsburgh Penguins' Opening Night Lineup for 2014-15 Season
A growing sect of Pittsburgh Penguins fans have been calling for wholesale changes within the organization over the last few seasons. Those folks have probably seen more roster revisions than they thought possible since Jim Rutherford came on board in early June, and the last month and some change only marks the beginning of a new chapter in Steel City.
The mantra of "patience is a virtue" caved this summer, and tough personnel choices were made following a second-round loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers. That Game 7 failure seemed to be a tipping point for Mario Lemieux and Co., and they gutted the front office before hiring ex-Carolina Hurricanes GM Rutherford, who then fired longtime head coach Dan Bylsma.
Within a week of taking the job, the 65-year-old "good ol' boy" started retooling the roster while keeping an eye on advanced metrics. Math has its fingerprints all over the current shape of the roster, which will likely change between now and opening night on Oct. 9 against the Anaheim Ducks.
As the dust settles following the eruption that is free agency, now's as good a time as any to see how the Penguins are shaping up heading into the 2014-15 campaign. This examination assumes that Rutherford will retain restricted free agents Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling.
Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently reported that the team hopes to sign the former to a long-term deal soon, while the latter was part of the James Neal trade and probably won't be allowed to walk for nothing.
First Forward Line: Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis
The idea that just anyone can lace up the skates and be successful with Sidney Crosby is tired and lazy. It takes a certain kind of player to click with No. 87, and not everyone gets a card to that club; just ask Jarome Iginla or Alexei Ponikarovsky for theirs.
Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have flanked Crosby for the better part of the last decade, and that's not likely to change this season. Incoming head coach Mike Johnston utilized an up-tempo system during his time with the Portland Winterhawks, and he will lean on this familiar trio as he gets to know the ins and outs of the roster.
Comfort can betray though, and Johnston might see a way to spread the scoring around without disturbing the offensive flow too much. Kunitz has excelled alongside Evgeni Malkin in the past, while Dupuis is more than capable of playing a checking line role if the need arises.
These subtle shifts might not be ready for game action in October, so expect this line to remain intact unless inspiration strikes during training camp.
Second Forward Line: Beau Bennett, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist
It'll be strange to watch Pittsburgh's second unit jump over the boards without Neal leading the charge along with Malkin. The duo created an undeniable chemistry during Neal's time with the Penguins, but Rutherford deemed him expendable in the name of a little cap space and spreading out forward depth.
Patric Hornqvist came over from the Nashville Predators as part of the deal that sent Neal packing, so it seems natural that he'd slot into this spot alongside Malkin. The gloriousness of the chance to play with a world-class center isn't lost on the 27-year-old, who spoke to Wes Crosby of NHL.com recently about the move to Pittsburgh:
Obviously, it's hard to say how much I can produce while playing with [Crosby and Malkin]. I got a great opportunity in front of me, playing with two of the best centermen in the world, but I'm not going to change my game. I'm still going to go hard to the net and try to score goals around the net. Obviously, I'm so happy for this opportunity to come to this organization and a good team and have a great chance to win.
Go hard to the net and keep the stick down—perfect.
Beau Bennett will have to learn on the fly to keep up with these two vets, but both Malkin and Hornqvist are good at making those around them better. That's not a simple eye test talking: Hornqvist had outstanding WOWY numbers in Nashville, while Malkin tends to drive possession for his linemates in Pittsburgh.
If Bennett can get on board, this could be a dangerous line capable of playing with a lot of energy. If he can't, then don't be surprised to see a depth forward like Steve Downie tried out on this work-in-progress second line.
Third Forward Line: Nick Spaling, Brandon Sutter, Steve Downie
Rutherford's first order of business was to add some pop to the third and fourth lines. The bottom six will continue to be a shifting group as the season progresses, but this trio looks like a solid bet to open together.
It's here that the new general manager's work really starts to come through, as Nick Spaling and Steve Downie will be the highest-quality wingers Brandon Sutter has had since arriving in Pittsburgh two summers ago. The New York native has been held back by a mass of borderline NHL forwards as a Penguin, but that will change in 2014-15.
No one is going to confuse Downie for Ilya Kovalchuk, but he's no slouch when it comes to producing points, either. In the right situation, he can be dangerous—both physically and on the scoreboard—and Rutherford might have landed a bargain when he inked the journeyman to a one-year deal.
Spaling quietly scored 13 goals and added 19 assists for the Predators last year, and he is capable of playing all three forward positions for Johnston. He produced 32 points while skating with David Legwand and Craig Smith for a majority of his five-on-five shifts in Nashville, giving the Penguins reason to hope for a bit more upside out of the 25-year-old.
Fourth Forward Line: Blake Comeau, Marcel Goc, Craig Adams
Rutherford is getting down to the nitty-gritty now that free agency is over with, and he will look to mold this fourth line like he did with the second and third units. Not surprisingly, he decided to keep Marcel Goc, a leftover deadline pickup from the former regime that settled in nicely while skating alongside Bennett and Lee Stempniak as the postseason progressed.
He won't be counted on to score bunches of goals in his first full campaign in Pittsburgh. Instead, the Penguins will look for him to remain positive in terms of possession while pitching in with the occasional lit lamp.
Blake Comeau could end up seeing time on the third line, but he seems to fit in well with Goc and the hardworking Craig Adams. Maybe this trio doesn't make it to October, but you get a good idea of how the new-look Penguins will be able to roll four lines here. The top six isn't quite as deep, while the bottom six looks better than it has in a few years.
First Defensive Pairing: Kris Letang and Paul Martin
Like the bottom-six group of forwards, Pittsburgh's defensive pairings could see a shake-up over the next few months. Yet Kris Letang and Paul Martin have to be considered an old standby for Johnston even if the duo wasn't his creation.
They took more than 63 percent of five-on-five shifts together during the postseason, and Martin was relied on to bail out Letang from time to time, as the smooth-skating defender struggled to find his rhythm after missing 43 regular-season contests in 2013-14.
Look for Letang to bounce back in a big way after working out all offseason. Bylsma rolled out new systems in camp last year, and the defender was forced to miss that entire process due to injury. Barring another catastrophe, he'll be able to learn Johnston's schemes from the get-go and will form a strong puck-moving combination with Martin.
Second Defensive Pairing: Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta
Christian Ehrhoff is the easy part of the equation. He was signed as a free agent to be a Matt Niskanen replacement, and he'll take up a spot somewhere in Pittsburgh's top four. If Letang and Martin show signs of weakness early on, he could see time on the first pairing.
Likewise, if that duo settles in like they can and avoids injury, Ehrhoff could be poised for a monster offensive season while working on the second unit alongside Olli Maatta. Asking the soon-to-be 20-year-old to play top-four minutes might be a tough ask, but the kid showed he had the chops last year and garnered serious consideration for the Calder Trophy for his work.
He'll come back a year better, allowing the Penguins to utilize Rob Scuderi in a strict shutdown role while covering for the mistakes of another young but talented blueliner.
Third Defensive Pairing: Rob Scuderi and Simon Despres
There's not a team in the NHL that wouldn't love to add a top-six defenseman "for the right price." Expect Rutherford to perform due diligence in his search for help on the backend, but Simon Despres could be trusted with a roster spot if he has a strong camp.
This could be a make-it-or-break-it campaign for the 22-year-old. Despres has spent the last two years shuttling between the AHL and NHL, and there appears to be a third-pairing role there for the taking. If he does grab the hypothetical brass ring, he'll need someone to teach him the ropes and cover up the occasional misstep.
Ehrhoff isn't in Pittsburgh to play on the third pairing, and Maatta needs a little help of his own. That makes the veteran Rob Scuderi the natural choice to help Despres along. Scuderi has lost a step since his glory days in Pittsburgh (round one), but he's a serviceable defender in a role like this.
Starting Goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury
Another year and another soft playoff performance for Marc-Andre Fleury. He avoided the outright meltdown that he had in 2013, but the series against the Rangers still wasn't pretty for the former Stanley Cup winner.
The long and the short of it: Fleury's contract is up following the 2014-15 campaign. If he wants to continue to make upward of $5 million a season as Pittsburgh's backbone, then he needs to come through with a stellar 2014-15 season.
Then he needs to forget all about it and win in the postseason. No one questions his ability to hang on to the staring role during the first 82 games of the marathon. It's during the second season that he runs into trouble, and he won't be judged until that time comes.