Despite losing James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and Jussi Jokinen, the Pittsburgh Penguins are still the team to beat in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.
Sidney Crosby will likely centre the top line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, and Evgeni Malkin will centre Beau Bennett and newcomer Patric Hornqvist on line two. On paper this top six group seems significantly weaker than last season, though the added depth to their bottom units will make them a better team.
Assuming he is resigned, Brandon Sutter will continue to centre the third line between many new faces. Nick Spaling can play both centre and wing, Blake Comeau can play both sides, and Steve Downie can play on any line as either a forechecker or bodyguard for the Pens stars. Faceoff specialist Marcel Goc will centre the fourth line alongside Craig Adams, and any other fourth liner within the Pens organization. Jayson Megna, Andrew Ebbett, and Zach Sill are all viable options.
On the blueline, expect the Pens to make more changes beyond the Christian Ehrhoff signing. Paul Martin has expressed interest to explore free agency with one year left on his contract, and Rob Scuderi struggled to make an impact despite being paid over $3 million per season. Combined with Kris Letang’s $7.25 million cap hit, the two defenseman account for almost 20 per cent of the Penguins cap room, according to CapGeek.com. Not to mention the Pens are looking to provide high level prospects Derrick Pouliout and Olli Maatta the opportunity to secure full time positions, despite both players recovering from shoulder surgery. The Pens depth charts, finances, and individual statistics all point to the same conclusion – expect Scuderi and/or Martin to be dealt before the season begins.
In net Marc-Andre Fluery will remain between the pipes, despite his inability to finish out important games. Ironically, however, the “wilted flower” is coming off a very impressive postseason, recording a .915 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average. His contract expires next summer, but until then he will remain with the Pens organization. Regarding the backup position, Jeff Zatkoff and new arrival Thomas Greiss will compete for that role.
As of now, the Penguins have 19 of their 25 roster spots filled, and are in the process of negotiating new contracts with RFA’s Sutter and Spaling. This leaves four positions available entering training camp in September, and 2014 first round selection Kasperi Kapanen has impressed early. Other notables to crack the lineup are defensive prospects Simon Despres, Scott Harington, and Brian Dumoulin.
The Penguins are obviously a playoff team, and general manager Jim Rutherford is in the process of bulking the team up for a deep playoff run. Last season, the Pens had only six forwards reach double digits in goals, and now they have eight players on their roster with at least one 20-goal season under their belt.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the only NHL club to finish the season in the top eight and advance past the second playoff round. This stat proves that quality teams need to build for the postseason rather than worry about opening night, and Jim Rutherford has done just that. The Pens have filled out their offensive core, have ample defensive depth, and are almost ready to take to the ice and contend.
Expect the 2014-15 Penguins to top their division and the eastern conference, and continue to dominate offensively. Expect Downie to spend the season in the penalty box, and Crosby to win the Art Ross Trophy. Expect the Penguins to go deep and make the conference finals, but like always, consider it an incredible disappointment if they do not win the Stanley Cup.