5 Reasons Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Will Be Better in 2014-15

Steve RodenbaughContributor IIIJuly 31, 2014

5 Reasons Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Will Be Better in 2014-15

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    Hans Pennink/Associated Press

    With the dust now settled from an eventful draft and free-agency period, it's time to start taking a closer look at the Pittsburgh Penguins to gauge the impact that all of the personnel changes will have.

    Having made wholesale changes in the front office, behind the bench and on the ice, the Pens team that takes the ice in October will be much different than the one that left the ice in after yet another heartbreaking playoff defeat in May.

    With training camp on the horizon, let's take a look at five reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins will be a better team next season than they were last season.

The Penguins Will Be a Bigger Team

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    While bigger doesn't always mean better in the NHL, being the bigger team that can physically wear down your opponents certainly doesn't hurt, especially in the playoffs.

    While the 2014-15 Pens may not be as physically imposing as teams from years past that boasted rugged players such as Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko or Hal Gill, they have made a concerted effort to add the element of size to their lineup.

    Having added bigger players such as Blake Comeau, Nick Spaling, Patric Hornqvist and Steve Downie along with the hiring of legendary tough guy and former Pen Rick Tocchet as an assistant coach, the Pens have gone to great lengths to ensure they won't get pushed around as they have been in the past.

    Having watched bigger and more rugged teams like the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup in recent years, the Pens seem to be following their example and will be a much tougher team to play against in the 2014-15 season than they were in years past.

The Penguins Will Be a Deeper Team

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    While five of the Penguins' top-six forwards reached double digits in goals last season, only one of the bottom-six forwards reached that mark.

    Although that lack of depth was covered up by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for 59 goals and 117 assists, it was exploited in the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, who got big contributions from their third and fourth lines.

    To become a more balanced team, the Pens began their offseason makeover by trading James Neal, who tallied 27 goals last season, to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, who combined for 35 goals.

    In addition, the Pens added former 20-goal forwards Blake Comeau and Steve Downie and re-signed Marcel Goc, who has averaged 10 goals a season since 2009.

    With the expected re-signing of Brandon Sutter and return of Beau Bennett from wrist surgery, the 2014-15 Pens will have 10 forwards who either have scored or are capable of reaching double-digit goals, not to mention the extra offense that blue-line newcomer Christian Ehrhoff will provide.

    While the Pens' top-six forwards will likely not be as productive as they were last season, their bottom-six forwards will be not a liability as they have been, and that will make the Pens a much better team next season.

The Penguins Will Have Better Goaltending Depth

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    With the loss of Tomas Vokoun even before the start of last season due to blood clots, the Penguins went from having one of the best goaltending tandems in the 2012-13 season to one of the most suspect in 2013-14.

    While backup Jeff Zatkoff played well in his limited opportunities, there was never any real chance that he would supplant Marc-Andre Fleury in net even if he struggled yet again in the postseason.

    This season, however, the Pens' goaltending figures to be a strong point as Fleury, fresh off of his best regular- and postseason performances since the 2007-2008 season, will be firmly entrenched as the starter, and Thomas Greiss will try to take the backup job from Jeff Zatkoff.

    Seen by many as a potential starting goaltender, Greiss gives the Pens a backup plan in the event that Fleury once again struggles, and although he only signed for one year, he could be brought back as the starter and to bridge the gap until the Pens' top goaltending prospects are ready to jump to the NHL.

    Because both Fleury and Greiss are facing free agency next summer, both figure to be motivated to get a long-term contract and, as history has shown, that should bode well for the Pens next season.

The Penguins Will Be More Willing to Go to the Net

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    During the Penguins' disastrous four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final, it became painfully obvious that, while the Bruins were willing to pay the price to score ugly goals, the Pens were not.

    Having led the league in goals scored, the Pens seemed content to play on the perimeter against a tough and disciplined Bruins team that dared them to play dump-and-chase hockey.

    One would have thought the Pens learned their lesson, but one year later, they had the same problems in 2014 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, barely surviving a six-game series against the former and blowing a 3-1 series lead against the latter.

    Following the hiring of new general manager Jim Rutherford, the Pens have made a concerted effort to address that issue and dealt James Neal in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, who each have a reputation for their willingness to get to the net. 

    In addition, they also acquired Steve Downie, a gritty player who emulates former Pen player and current assistant coach Rick Tocchet, and Blake Comeau, a former 20-goal scorer who has a knack for creating traffic in front of goaltenders.

    Given the personnel moves they've made thus far, the Pens seem to have finally learned the lesson that regular-season and postseason hockey are not the same thing, and in order to get back to being a championship team, they need to be able to score ugly goals when pretty goals are hard to come by.

The Penguins Will Be Better at Making Adjustments

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Having taken over a floundering team on the verge of missing the playoffs and turning them into a Stanley Cup champion in 2009, it would be hard to blame Dan Bylsma for believing his system can win in the NHL.

    Unfortunately, that initial confidence led to reluctance and often downright refusal to adjust to what postseason opponents were doing against the Pens, and Byslma's postseason record of 27-27 since 2009 speaks for itself.

    While one would have thought suffering a humbling four-game sweep to the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final would have made Bylsma more flexible in his approach, the Pens once again struggled against physical teams that clogged the neutral zone and took away stretch passes.

    In addition, Bylsma's refusal to focus on matchups once again allowed lesser teams to negate the Pens' skill advantage by ensuring they had their best defenders on the ice against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

    Ultimately, Byslma's lack of adjustments seem to have cost him his job and have been a big reason why the organization selected Mike Johnston, known for his ability to adjust on the fly, to take the helm.

    With Johnston behind the bench, expect the Pens to be more aggressive in all three zones in the new puck-possession style, which emphasizes entering the offensive zone with speed instead of relying on stretch passes and dumping the puck, strategies that had not worked as well in the postseason.