We haven't seen exactly what new Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston has in store for the team, but we can reasonably assume his style won't dramatically shift in just one summer as he transitions from the WHL to the NHL.
As the bench boss of the Portland Winterhawks, Johnston deployed a scheme that required defensemen to be able to skate well and make accurate first passes out of the zone. Moreover, his offensive system discourages dumping out of the defensive zone and calls for forwards to pitch the puck back to the blue line once the opposition has collapsed to protect the net.
With Kris Letang poised to return healthy and Christian Ehrhoff added during free agency, few teams in the NHL will be able to match Pittsburgh's offense from the blue line.
Letang struggled to stay in the lineup last season due to various ailments and setbacks, but he'll hit the 2014-15 campaign running this time around and should be considered a top-10 favorite to win the Norris Trophy next season.
That trophy is more of a testament to offensive output than defensive capability, and Letang has been among the NHL's best in terms of producing points as a defenseman when healthy. He's every bit as good as Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan McDonagh and Mark Giordano in terms of offensive output, and that trio finished inside the top 10 when it came time for the Professional Hockey Writers Association to vote on the Norris last year:
Matt Niskanen finished 11th in Norris Trophy voting: pic.twitter.com/3ZAfFtnAA5— Seth Rorabaugh (@emptynetters) June 25, 2014
If Letang plays in 70 or more games, expect him to be in that mix.
Ehrhoff has spent the last two seasons in hockey's version of purgatory, appearing in 126 games for the Buffalo Sabres before getting bought out by general manager Tim Murray for essentially saying the wrong things during the offseason. That worked out fine for the Penguins, as unrestricted free agent Matt Niskanen cashed in on a career year and signed with the Washington Capitals.
Don't expect Ehrhoff and Letang to pair up often. They'll be complemented by Olli Maatta and Paul Martin, giving Pittsburgh an electric top four in terms of offensive ability. Martin is 33 years old and missed all but 39 contests last year, but he still averaged nearly .40 points per game—just about on par with his career average.
Penguins possession numbers with and without Paul Martin over the last 4 years: pic.twitter.com/htnAOj8nCe— Robert Paredes (@RobertJFTC) July 1, 2014
Johnny Feulner of Pen's Labyrinth doesn't see Martin maintaining his spot on the top power-play unit. Instead, he believes Ehrhoff needs to be in that slot, meaning the Penguins would have Letang and Martin to work with across the two groups. Johnston could run with four forwards and one defenseman or utilize Letang and Martin on the second group. How tough would that be to match up against?
Before Ehrhoff arrived in Pittsburgh, the team had one of the NHL's deadliest power plays. It's only going to improve in 2014-15.
Don't overlook Maatta as a contributor either. He might begin the season on the injured reserve, but that could help the second-year defenseman avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Players generally struggle as the true grind of an 82-game season wears on them in the second year, but Maatta should avoid at least a little of that.
Mike Johnston doesn't anticipate Olli Maatta or Derrick Pouliot being quite ready for start of season after shoulder surgeries. #Penguins— Shelly Anderson (@pgshelly) July 10, 2014
Missing training camp with a new coach in place isn't an ideal scenario, but Maatta took to Dan Bylsma's system quickly enough last season once he surprisingly made the NHL squad. Adapting again shouldn't be an issue.
Regardless of when Mattaa is able to play, it shouldn't be too tough for him to replicate his rookie output of 29 points. He didn't get as much playing time in October of last year, but as injuries continued to rock the Penguins blue line, the former first-round draft pick saw his ice time increase. Maatta took the extra time and ran with it, scoring seven points in November and another eight points in December.
At that point, the Penguins started to get players back, so Maatta saw his ice time decrease. In other words, the teenager compiled more than half of his points when the Penguins decided to lean on him due to injury for two months. If he starts the season as a top-four defender, breaking the 30-point/10-goal barrier isn't out of the question.
That's a lot of firepower from the defense, and those totals came under Bylsma's system, which didn't jell with Letang. Johnston is going to want to see even more chances coming from activated defensemen, meaning the Penguins should get more production than the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues or the Boston Bruins from the blue line.