Top 5 Moves the Pittsburgh Penguins Must Make Before Next Season
Having endured a tumultuous offseason last year, which included the firing of their general manager and head coach, as well as a major roster shakeup, the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed set for a relatively quite summer.
However, after suffering yet another early-round exit from the playoffs and with rumors swirling about Evgeni Malkin's possible desire for a trade, per Sportsnet 960 (h/t Hockey Feed), the next few months promise to be anything but quiet for the Pens as they try to take the next step toward winning the Stanley Cup.
With the NHL draft and the start of free agency just around the corner and a lot of looming questions surrounding the organization, let's look at the top five moves the Pens must make before next season.
No. 5: Commit to a Game Plan
Having replaced Dan Bylsma as head coach last summer, Mike Johnston brought his puck-possession system to Pittsburgh with the hopes of returning the Penguins to Stanley Cup contention.
Similar to the systems employed by the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, the winners of five of the past six Stanley Cups, Johnston's system emphasizes short passes, puck support and defensemen jumping into the play. It produced good results early on.
Through the first two months of the season, the Pens posted a 16-5-2 record and were sitting atop the Metropolitan Division. However, injuries on the blue line raised doubts as to whether the Pens could effectively implement Johnston's system.
As the Pens began to cool off, the coaching staff switched to a conservative, dump-and-chase style of play, apparently believing that, even though they had a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way, they would have to play low-scoring games in order to turn things around.
Despite the change in strategy, the Pens' struggles continued. They limped into the playoffs, having lost 12 of their last 17 games, and they were bounced by the New York Rangers in five games after scoring just eight goals.
If the Pens are to turn things around, they must be willing to commit to a game plan rather than bouncing from one system to another at the first sign of adversity.
No. 4: Look to Promote from Within
Veterans Marcel Goc and Zach Sill have been traded away. Maxim Lapierre and Craig Adams are not expected to return next season, with both heading to free agency. As such, the Penguins seem to be in the midst of an offensive youth movement.
While the Pens may not have a deep pool of forward prospects, a few of them performed well when given the opportunity in the NHL last season and should be looked at as viable candidates to round out the roster next season.
First among them is Scott Wilson who was called up for the postseason after tallying 19 goals and 22 assists with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Having shown grit, speed and a willingness to aggressively forecheck, Wilson would be a natural fit in head coach Mike Johnston's system as a fourth line grinder.
Another intriguing prospect is Bryan Rust who skated in 14 contests for the Pens and performed well, averaging more than 12 minutes of ice time per game.
In addition, top prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Oskar Sundqvist will get a long look at training camp. However, as both are European prospects still adapting to the North American game, they will likely start the season in the AHL.
Instead of overpaying for free agents such as Tanner Glass or aging journeymen such as Andrew Ebbett, as they have in recent years, the Pens would be better served to look toward younger players to provide the speed and grit that they've been looking for elsewhere.
No. 3: Be Selective but Aggressive in Free Agency
With just 13 players currently under contract for next season, the Penguins will have a lot of holes to fill on their 25-man roster and should be aggressive in doing so.
Unlike previous years, when management had to focus on signing core players to long-term extensions, this year promises to be different, as the Pens will be more focused on adding players instead of simply standing pat.
Currently, the Pens have $11.2 million in cap space with which to pursue key free agents, and although some of that cap space will likely be used to sign restricted free agents Ian Cole and Beau Bennett, buyouts and cost-cutting trades could push that number higher.
Given their deep pool of talent on the blue line, the focus should be on adding grit and scoring depth, and Joel Ward and Justin Williams could add both.
Having averaged better than 20 goals over the last two seasons, Ward helped to form probably the best third line in the NHL with the Capitals last season.
Williams was the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the Los Angeles Kings and is well known to general manager Jim Rutherford from his days with the Carolina Hurricanes.
On the restricted free agent front, rumors of the Pens' pursuit of Brandon Saad persist, reported by ESPN's Pierre LeBrun (h/t CBS Chicago), but questions remain as to whether they could acquire the necessary draft picks to sign him to an offer sheet.
Whatever the outcome, if the Pens cannot add a top-six winger in trade, they must target and pursue one in free agency if they want to be a serious contender next season.
No. 2: Keep Key Role Players from Leaving Town
Having made a concerted effort to bolster the Penguins' offensive depth, general manager Jim Rutherford must now put in the effort to ensure this new-found depth is not lost to free agency this offseason.
After signing gritty forwards Blake Comeau and Steve Downie to one-year contracts, Rutherford added Daniel Winnik and Max Lapierre, both in the final year of their respective contracts and soon-to-be unrestricted free agents, via trade.
While Winnik and Lapierre combined to amass just 11 points in 56 games with the Pens, Comeau and Downie combined for 30 goals and added the kind of grit and toughness the team had lacked in previous seasons.
After tormenting the Pens as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 2014 postseason matchup, Comeau showed good chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and was on pace for a career year before a wrist injury sidelined him for six weeks.
Having excelled for the Tampa Bay Lightning under the guidance of current Pens assistant coach Rick Tocchet, Downie showed flashes offensively, led the league in penalty minutes and kept opponents from taking liberties with the team's stars.
With Pittsburgh's front office, as reported by William DePaoli of Inside Pittsburgh Sports, focused on adding a top-six forward via trade, they must not lose sight of the need to solidify their bottom-six forward group. Re-signing Comeau and Downie would do just that.
No. 1: Trade Brandon Sutter for a Top-6 Winger
On almost any other NHL team, Brandon Sutter would be a top-six center and one of the team's most-productive and highest-paid players.
Unfortunately for Sutter, the Pittsburgh Penguins aren't like any other team, with superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering the top two lines. That has been reflected by Sutter's diminished production and salary.
Although Sutter has been more than willing to take a back seat to two of the game's top stars for the good of the team, he may not be willing to do so at a bargain price for much longer.
Entering the final year of his two-year, $6.6 million contract, Sutter will likely be looking for a sizable raise and a long-term contract despite having thus far failed to match his 40-point rookie performance with Carolina in 2009-10.
For the Pens, who already have almost half of their cap space tied up in Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, that will not be financially feasible, especially in light of the team's need for a top-six winger.
Having already traded Sutter once when he was general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes to the Penguins—part of the deal for Jordan Staal at the 2012 draft—Jim Rutherford should deal him again in order to acquire the type of talented winger the Pens desperately need to once again contend for the Stanley Cup.