Pittsburgh Penguins Position Battles to Watch in 2014
With the first game of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ regular season in a little less than nine weeks, questions surrounding the opening day lineup have already begun to spark.
It’s not hard to understand that certain positions are a lock, such as Evgeni Malkin at center on the second line or Christian Ehrhoff’s slot on the first defensive unit. Others, however, will be.
In this article, we will go over the three areas on the ice that have people guessing as to who will play where. Since we are only in the middle of August, it seems these questions won’t truly be answered until the puck drops on opening day on Oct. 9.
First-Line Right Wing Battle
All was calm on the offensive front last season until first-line winger Pascal Dupuis tore his ACL after colliding with linemate Sidney Crosby in late December. Dupuis’ departure made for a hectic search for his replacement. Everyone from Lee Stempniak to Malkin saw time on the team’s top line, but no one was able to fill the void that “Dupers” left.
Dupuis turned 35 in April and is not expected to return to his usual form this season after sustaining the midseason injury. This makes for a wide-open battle for the first-line right wing position over the course of the 2014-15 season. Beau Bennett and the newly acquired Patric Hornqvist could be possible candidates to take over Dupuis’ position.
Bennett, who has been the guy presumed to be Dupuis’ successor, will be able to provide a sense of youth and charisma to the top line. Despite playing in only 47 games over his two-year career, he is destined to prove why he was taken at No. 20 overall in the 2010 draft.
Hornqvist on the other hand is a seasoned veteran who can be the sort of grinder that the top-two lines need. The ex-Nashville Predator will most likely though be taking over for James Neal, the man he was traded for, on the second line.
Now just because Dupuis will not be back to his original playmaking ability, it’s not like he is never destined to play with Crosby or Chris Kunitz again. He may still make the top line even though Bennett and Hornqvist are biting at his heels. It’s a matter of who wants it more.
A Stanley Cup Final berth has eluded the Penguins going on five years now. Big changes to the lineup like this, for example, should be expected now.
The signing of goaltender Thomas Greiss this offseason was a questionable one, but nonetheless a solid pickup by general manager Jim Rutherford.
The German-born netminder, who backed up Mike Smith last season for the Arizona Coyotes, had a great 2013-14 campaign, recording a save percentage of .920 and a GAA of 2.29 over the course of 25 games.
While he no doubt is becoming a strong candidate for a starting NHL job, the 28-year-old will be competing against one of the more familiar faces in the league in Marc-Andre Fleury.
Despite Fleury’s past postseason issues, he has proved time and time again that he is a great regular-season goalie. Refer to his stats in this link here.
Greiss doesn’t want to be a backup goalie anymore, and Rutherford most likely saw that when he noticed his name was available in the 2014 free-agent pool. Fleury was probably the first player to take note of his GM’s signing.
Look for Greiss to be a motivational piece for “Flower” this regular season. Fleury knows his job isn’t for the title of regular-season netminder, but for the role of backing his club to it's next Stanley Cup championship. Having a solid, up-and-coming presence behind Fleury should help him and his teammates accomplish this.
However, Griess knows he has the talent to be that man too, and he will be gunning for Fleury down the long road that is the NHL season.
Battle of Defensive Youth
A true NHL fan can tell you just how stacked the Penguins’ defensive prospect pool is. Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot and Simon Despres are just three prospects that highlight the young crop of talent.
Soon-to-be 20-year-old Olli Maatta was the first of these defensemen to make an immediate impact at the pro level. He was expected to play in only a few games at the start of the 2013-14 season, but instead ended up competing in 78 of the team’s 82 meetings.
Maatta was drafted at the No. 22 spot in the 2012 NHL entry draft, but believe it or not, he was the second pick for the Penguins that year. The Penguins acquired the No. 8 pick in 2012 along with Brandon Sutter when they shipped Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. They used that pick on one of the most highly touted defensive prospects in the world in Pouliot.
Pouliot is expected to be even more of a defensive centerpiece down the road than Maatta is now, but unfortunately both men have undergone shoulder surgery this offseason and are expected to miss the early part of the regular season.
This means there are plenty of slots opening up on the defensive lineup now. Dumoulin and Despres seem to have the best chance to take over Maatta’s spot in the early portion of next season, so expect the position battle to start as soon as training camp kicks off.
It will surely be interesting to see what the defense looks like come playoff time.