5 Biggest Questions Remaining for the Pittsburgh Penguins
With the NHL draft and free agency both passed, there doesn't figure to be a lot of news or speculation coming out of NHL organizations.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, however, the tumultuous offseason that began the day after they left the ice in defeat to the New York Rangers—having blown a 3-1 series lead for the second time in four years—continues.
Having hired a new general manager and new head coach, traded away one of their top players and lost more than one-third of their NHL-level defensemen in free agency, the Pens have answered some questions about the team's direction but others remain.
With the start of training camp still a month away, let's look at the five biggest questions remaining for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
What to Do with Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi?
Since the Penguins have lost three of their top seven defensemen from last season's team to free agency already, it would seem odd for them to trade away another, one but that is exactly what many observers feel that they should do.
With Paul Martin entering the final year of his contract and Rob Scuderi entering the second year of his deal, the Pens now have seven defensemen penciled in on the 2014-15 roster. That doesn't include top prospects like Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot, who are viewed as NHL-ready.
According to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Martin has declined attempts by the Pens to negotiate an extension and seems intent on testing free agency next summer, when he will be one of the prizes on the market.
Brought in to be a stabilizing influence on the blue line, Rob Scuderi struggled through injuries, which hampered his play. Some questioned whether the Pens would be better off by dealing him and his $3.375 cap hit elsewhere.
However, when compared to former Pen Deryk Engelland's $2.916 million cap hit, Scuderi's deal doesn't seem as bad, and he played well alongside Robert Bortuzzo on the third defensive pairing in the postseason.
While new general manager Jim Rutherford doesn't seem to be in any hurry to trade either Martin or Scuderi, the Pens still have yet to settle on their top-six forwards. Fans shouldn't be surprised to see one of the team dealt before or during next season in order to address needs elsewhere.
Will Pascal Dupuis Be the Same Player?
When he arrived in Pittsburgh as part of the Marian Hossa deal in 2008, few could have imagined that Pascal Dupuis would be as big of steal and contributor as he has turned out to be.
In five seasons with Pens, he has gone from a checking-line role to teaming with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz as part of the NHL's highest scoring line over the past three seasons.
After suffering a season-ending knee injury, Dupuis is expected to be fully recovered by the start of the regular season, but the question remains: Can a 34-year-old known for his speed still be the same player he was before the injury?
The answer, at least at this point, is probably not, but given his willingness to do the little things and his workman-like approach to the game, he doesn't have to be the player of years past in order to be as productive as he was before the injury.
With the Pens' shift to a puck-possession system under new head coach Mike Johnston, Dupuis should be as effective as ever, given his ability to backcheck and win battles along the boards.
While he could be moved down to a third-line role alongside Brandon Sutter to give the Pens better offensive depth, Dupuis will still be a reliable contributor in all three zones and reach the 20-goal mark next season.
Does Simon Despres Have a Future with the Penguins?
After the Penguins' collapse in the Eastern Conference Final in 2013, then head coach Dan Bylsma
raised eyebrows when he predicted that Simon Despres would be a top-four defenseman.
The surprised response from fans and the media wasn't because Despres doesn't have the size and skill needed to reach that level of play, but rather because the organization's handling of him makes one wonder if the Pens believe he ever will pan out.
During the past three seasons, Despres has played in just 85 regular-season games and six postseason games. He has struggled to stay in the lineup due to inconsistent play.
While Bylsma's system, which requires that defensemen be able to retrieve pucks and make outlet passes with little support from the forwards, may be partly to blame for Despres' struggles, he must make a good impression with new head Mike Johnston or else find himself on the trading block.
With four veteran defensemen already on the roster, Robert Bortuzzo pushing for playing time and Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot ready to step into prominent roles when they return from surgery, there may not be room on the blue line for Despres, who would have to clear waivers if sent to the minors again.
While there had been talk of the Pens moving either Rob Scuderi or Paul Martin, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin are expected to make a strong push in training camp to win a roster spot. Therefore, despite recently signing a two-year contract, Despres could be the odd man out.
Who Will Be Play Alongside Evgeni Malkin?
While the Penguins' offseason moves have benefited the team as a whole, one player who hasn't benefited is Evgeni Malkin, who will have to get acclimated to two new linemates before next season.
Having lined up alongside James Neal and Jussi Jokinen—who combined for 48 goals last season—Malkin was forced to watch as Neal was traded to the Nashville Predators, Jokinen signed with the Florida Panthers and best friend and rumored Pens target Nikolai Kulemin signed with the New York Islanders.
Fortunately, the Pens do have a lot of options. Pascal Dupuis' return from injury and the acquisitions of Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie and Nick Spaling have given the team more depth at forward.
As evident by his Hart and Art Ross Trophy-winning performance in the 2011-12 season, Malkin is at his best when his linemates are willing and able to go to the net and the slot area, which creates time and space for him to operate.
That's why it might be wise to reunite Malkin with Kunitz for the first time since that season and insert newcomer Spaling—who has good size and a knack for finding open ice and tallied 13 goals in a checking-line role last season—on the other side.
While trading Neal has made the Pens a deeper and more balanced team, the new coaching staff must find the right linemates for Malkin if he is to get back to being an MVP candidate.
Is Kris Letang More Valuable on the Ice or on the Trading Block?
Prior to the 2013 NHL playoffs, the consensus was that Kris Letang had turned the corner and was considered to be one of the top defensemen in the NHL.
Since then, his stock seems to have taken a tumble, as back-to-back disappointing postseason performances, coupled with injuries that limited him to just 37 games during the 2013-14 season, have led to questions as to whether he is worth the eight-year, $58 million contract he signed last summer.
While overpaying for a mobile defenseman is a bad habit that pervades the NHL and is not limited to the Pens, when you have so much money committed to two players—Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who make $18.2 million combined—there's not a lot of room for error.
Unfortunately, given his recent performance, it looks like Letang's deal was an error on the Pens' part, especially when you consider that he now makes more than each of the last five Norris Trophy winners.
The question is, Should the Pens look to move him, or do they simply cross their fingers and hope that Letang eventually becomes the player that everyone seemed to think he was during the 2012-13 regular season?
Fortunately for the Pens, his deal doesn't completely financially strap them, since Crosby and Malkin were willing to take less money to give the organization a better chance to build a Stanley Cup contender.
For now, the loss of Matt Niskanen in free agency and injuries to Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot have made Letang more valuable to the Pens, but new general manager Jim Rutherford could decide that Letang's price isn't equal to his production and actively shop him.