The Pittsburgh Penguins loaded up with veteran talent before the trade deadline and entered the playoffs with Stanley Cup expectations. Not aspirations, expectations. And those expectations were dashed when the Penguins were swept in the Eastern Conference Final.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what promises to be a challenging summer for GM Ray Shero.
When the Penguins were unceremoniously swept by the Boston Bruins, it raised questions about what changes could be in store.
Shero quickly signed head coach Dan Bylsma to a contract extension, a vote of confidence that really shouldn't have been necessary for the coach of a team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
If there would be no change behind the bench, then perhaps it would be goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on the chopping block, after another disappointing playoff performance. No chance. "The faith I have in Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't waned," Shero said.
Bylsma had Fleury's back too, saying, "He's the number one goalie for this franchise and he will be going forward." That makes it pretty clear that the Penguins will maintain the status quo in the crease.
Taking that stance may force the Penguins' hand in other areas, however.
Defenceman Kris Letang, who has one year left on his current contract, but is looking at a possible contract extension this summer, may be too pricey for the Penguins and could be traded.
Pittsburgh also has five unrestricted free agent forwards -- Pascal Dupuis, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams. Given their current salary cap situation, the Penguins won't be able to keep all of them. They will have a lot of holes to fill if they don't keep any of them.
It's not as though the Penguins should be looking to massively overhaul a roster that, fully healthy, was probably the most talented in the league, but it's difficult to look at their playoff results and just try to maintain the status quo, because the Penguins are already the favourites for the 2014 Stanley Cup.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma
Penguins Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
When healthy, Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game, as he established for the first three-quarters of the 2013 season, before his jaw was crushed by a deflected Brooks Orpik slapshot. Over his career, Crosby has averaged 1.42 points per game, best among active players, and his 1.28 points per game in the playoffs is also tops among active players.
While it's a positive that Crosby's latest injury was about the jaw more than the concussions that have plagued him in recent seasons, health is an ongoing concern for the 25-year-old, who has missed 113 games over the last three seasons. For the sake of his career, a fully healthy season in 2013-2014 would be a refreshing change of pace.
Riding shotgun with Crosby has worked out well for Chris Kunitz, a blue-collar winger who, despite Crosby's injuries, has scored 71 goals over the last three seasons, which is tied for 25th with Johan Franzen and Marian Hossa.
Over those same three years, James Neal has scored 83 goals, which has him tied for 10th with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter. After a 40-goal season in 2011-2012, Neal's ice time declined last season, perhaps a result of a more healthy Crosby and less healthy Evgeni Malkin, but Neal is a 25-year-old who has never scored fewer than 20 goals in an NHL season, making him one of nine players to surpass that threshold in each of the last five seasons.
A shoulder injury caused Evgeni Malkin to miss 13 games, limited him in others (and he missed four games with a concussion), yet he still managed better than a point per game despite receiving his lowest ice time per game (19:42) since his rookie season. The Penguins made their decision on Malkin's future, almost immediately after the season ended, signing him to a contract extension that will pay him $9.5-million per season starting in the 2014-2015 season; that decision emphasizes that the Penguins will hitch their wagon to their two generational centres and worry about filling in the spaces around them.
Acquired when injuries (most notably Crosby's) shredded the Penguins' scoring lines, Jussi Jokinen merely scored seven goals and 11 points in 10 games down the stretch, matching his point total in 33 games with Carolina. Jokinen is a versatile player and skilled enough to put up points playing with skilled linemates, but if he can't find a spot in Pittsburgh's top six, then it's harder to put him in a position to succeed, and that's why he was a healthy scratch about half the time in the playoffs.
Drafted in the first round in 2010, Beau Bennett had 28 points in 39 AHL games and was spotted into the Pittsburgh lineup for 26 games, showing some promise, though if Bennett is expected to score in the NHL, some additional time in the AHL might help raise that facet of his game -- he scored 10 goals in 65 games between the AHL and NHL last season.
Acquired as part of the trade for Jordan Staal last summer, Brandon Sutter got destroyed in puck possession measures but, playing behind Crosby and Malkin, he's not put in a position to succeed there. He gets the tough defensive assignments and his shifts start in the defensive zone more often than not and still tallied 11 goals in 48 games.
Stocky checking forward Joe Vitale has 21 points and is minus-13 in 110 career games, the kind of production that puts a player on the fringe of the roster. He can provide a physical presence on the fourth line, or be stuck in the press box, depending on the day.
Dressing for every game and playing 10 minutes per, Tanner Glass only scored two points, the lowest point production of any forward with more than 400 minutes last season.
As the Penguins kept adding forwards throughout the season, Tyler Kennedy saw his role diminished. He played 12:28 per game, his lowest time on ice since his rookie season, he was a career-low minus-6 and his per-game point production (0.24 ppg) was a career-worst. He was effective, when given the chance to play, in the playoffs, but if the Penguins are looking to trim salaries, they may not be able to bring back a checking winger making more than $2-million per season, whether that means trading Kennedy or not tendering an offer.
Dustin Jeffrey has been lingering around the edges of the Penguins' lineup for five years, scoring 27 points in a total of 90 games; okay production considering he gets less than 12 minutes of ice time per game, but not enough to convince coaches that he deserves a bigger role.
Filling out the forward spots will be a little challenging if the Penguins can't get any of their unrestricted free agents back. Pascal Dupuis is probably the first priority, after an outstanding season, but if Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke move on, that would still mean needing at least a couple top nine forwards, but potentially four or five.
The challenge for the Penguins will be finding cost-effective solutions. Some external free agent wingers that might be worth a look include Clarke MacArthur, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Danny Briere, Michael Ryder, Dainius Zubrus, Ryan Jones, Colby Armstrong or Danny Cleary. That's a lot of names, but there could be a lot of spots to fill.
Penguins Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Since 2000, there have been three defencemen to score a point-per-game and have a double-digit plus rating in a season. Admittedly, 2013 was a shortened season, but Kris Letang was one of them (Mike Green and Nicklas Lidstrom were the others) and it's looking like he may not be back with the Penguins next season.
It's possible that recent trade talk is leverage, to get Letang signed to a favourable deal, but he's going to be looking for something in the $7-million range, the kind of thing that offensive defencemen who play 25 minutes per game have come to command in this league.
One more for Letang: in the last three seasons, Zdeno Chara is the only other defenceman to have at least 100 points and a cumulative plus-50 rating and if you're one of those who dislike plus-minus as a measure of a player's effectiveness, Letang's shot differentials are plenty good too.
A late-season wrist injury undermined a strong season from Paul Martin, who played a career-high 25:20 per game and scored at career-best rates across the board (0.18 gpg, 0.50 apg, 0.68 ppg) and was productive in the playoffs, with 11 points in 15 games. If Letang moves on, Martin becomes very important as a puck-moving blueliner for the Penguins.
Often overlooked as part of the Alex-Goligoski-James Neal trade, Matt Niskanen played more than 20 minutes per game for the first time since his rookie season, 2007-2008. While Niskanen may not ever become the point producer that it looked like he might be when he scored 35 points in his second season, he's been an effective, albeit sheltered, puck possession defenceman pretty much all along.
Despite getting eaten alive in his puck possession stats, and without scoring a single goal (until he scored the series winner against the Islanders in Round One), Brooks Orpik was still plus-17, the fifth time in the last six seasons that he's been a double-digit plus. Zdeno Chara (all six), Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the only other defencemen that can make that claim. Orpik is a crushing hitter who gets the tough defensive assignments for the Penguins.
Simon Despres had his minutes protected, but he was effective enough in that limited role as a rookie. He's now played 51 NHL games and should be ready for a more serious role next season.
After a bit of an emergence in 2011-2012, when he scored a career-high 17 points and played a career-high 16:09 per game, Deryk Engelland's role was reduced in 2013. He's limited, but a tough guy who can scrap and play third pairing minutes.
A defenceman with size, toughness and 235 AHL games on his resume, Robert Bortuzzo got into 15 games with Pittsburgh last season and didn't look out of place in a depth role.
The challenge facing the Penguins is what to do with their blueline should they decide to move forward without Letang. They have a very deep crop of prospects at the position, so one could jump into the role or, if the Penguins don't get a defenceman back for Letang, they could hit the free agent market for a steady veteran -- Jordan Leopold, Andrew Ference or Ian White, perhaps -- or maybe the Penguins would be willing to pay on shorter term to bring Rob Scuderi back into the fold.
Since 2005-2006, Tomas Vokoun owns a .921 save percentage, the second-best among goaltenders with at least 250 games played in that span, so he was an overqualified No. 2 when he signed with the Penguins last summer.
When Marc-Andre Fleury faltered in the playoffs, Vokoun stepped in, played a career-high 11 playoff games with a .933 save percentage.
Over the last three regular seasons, Marc-Andre Fleury has a .916 save percentage, which ranks 16th in that time; not outstanding, but decent.
The trouble, of course, comes in the playoffs. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury has played 31 games and posted an .880 save percentage, the worst among 25 goaltenders to play at least 10 playoff games over those four seasons. Ray Shero was adamant that the Penguins were pushing forward with Fleury, showing loyalty to a Cup-winning goaltender but, given his playoff performance, it sure seems like a risky proposition.
||8-30-38, +8, 57 GP
||6-18-24, -11, 73 GP
||9-36-45, +30, 44 GP
||3-16-19, +21, 50 GP
||Val d'Or (QMJHL)
||29-62-91, +9, 61 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||15-19-34, +25, 41 GP
||16-22-38, +5, 41 GP
||19-17-36, +18, 39 GP
||2-2-4, +3, 11 GP
||2-8-10, +10, 65 GP
A smart all-around defenceman, Olli Maatta was a first-round pick last summer and the 18-year-old got into three playoff games with Wilkes-Barre. He should excel in his third junior season next year.
Part of the Jordan Staal deal, Brian Dumoulin is a puck-moving defenceman with good size who may be ready to challenge for an NHL job after a decent first pro season.
An offensive defenceman who can skate and handle the puck well, Derrick Pouliot was the eighth overall pick last year. He'll need time to round out his game, but his puck skills give him a chance to put up points when he arrives in the NHL.
A smart defensive defenceman, Scott Harrington was a second-round pick in 2011, but isn't going to have an easy time climbing the organizational ladder, given some of the Penguins' other defensive prospects. Nevertheless, after a couple of seasons in the AHL, he could be ready.
A skilled forward who has 167 points in 127 games over the last two junior seasons, Anton Zlobin will get a chance to move up to the AHL to see if he can keep scoring.
2010 third-rounder Bryan Rust finished a strong junior season at Notre Dame, making him worth consideration if he continues his development.
There's a chance that 2011 seventh-round pick, Scott Wilson, could provide real value. He's put up 76 points in 78 games through his first two collegiate seasons.
Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Josh Archibald had a breakthrough sophomore season at Nebraska-Omaha and will have a few more seasons to develop.
Limited to just 11 AHL games due to injury, Tom Kuhnhackl has struggled to put it all together since his 2010-2011 junior season, but he's a skilled forward. If he could stay healthy for a season, he just might be able to recapture some of that promise.
A second-round pick in 2009, 21-year-old Philip Samuelsson has put in two AHL seasons. Could be tough to climb ahead of the other defencemen in the organization though.
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins have approximately $54.9M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Penguins lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
What I said the Penguins needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
They added: Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass, Simon Despres, Tomas Vokoun.
Jussi Jokinen, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.