Eric Majeski's (aka Netwolf) Camp Reports for LetsGoPens.com
2013 Season Preview
January 6, 2013
No matter how long the lockout lasted, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans were not going to forget the disaster that was the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff run. Losing to the Flyers is never a good thing, but the spectacular way in which it happened made it infinitely worse. Time and again, simple mistakes were made that always seemed to result in a Flyer goal. Much of the talk afterwards was that the Penguins just made a rash of uncharacteristic mistakes and that drastic changes were unnecessary. Ray Shero's actions since indicate he agrees, as the roster is largely the same.
The defense corps is largely unchanged, save for Zbynek Michalek being traded to Phoenix in a cost-cutting move. It could be argued that given his struggles here, it was also a case of addition by subtraction. Either way, his absence opens up a spot in the top 4 alongside Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, and the much-maligned Paul Martin. Matt Niskanen took some big strides forward, so he is the logical candidate to step up. The bottom pair will be up for grabs. Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy are on one-way deals, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo have to clear waivers, which almost makes it almost impossible that a rookie such as Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, or Brian Dumoulin cracks the lineup.
That illustrates another thing worth noting. Outside of that projected top 4, no one else in the system is ready for top 4 NHL duty. I know most will cite Despres' solid run last year, but if you go back and look at how he was used, you see that he played the most guarded minutes of any defenseman; lots of starts in the offensive zone and against lesser opposition. I make that point to make one many people will not like: short of a deal that nets the Pens another top 4 defenseman, Martin isn't going anywhere. There's simply no one to take his place, and if Niskanen falters, the problem gets even bigger.
Up front, Jordan Staal, Steve Sullivan, and Arron Asham are out, and Brandon Sutter and Tanner Glass are in. The Pens seemingly lose a lot of offense there, but I think Sutter has some untapped potential. He got virtually no power play ice time in Carolina and I can't see how that continues here. The second unit in Pittsburgh doesn't get a ton of time, but he figures to be a lock for it. He will definitely help on the defensive side of the puck. Glass will not be counted on offensively, but he's responsible defensively, kills penalties and brings a bit more speed than Asham, while providing about the same level of toughness.
Sullivan's largely unfilled departure leads to a couple of key questions. First, what happens to the power play? Last season, the Penguins ranked 5th in the NHL with a 19.7% conversion rate on the man advantage. It was by far the best power play under head coach Dan Bylsma. In 2010-11, they ranked 25th (15.8%) and in 2009-10 they ranked 19th (17.2%). One of the big differences was the arrival of Sullivan. He gave the top unit a much-needed right-handed playmaker that could be a threat on the left side of the ice. He finished third on the team with 21 power play points, behind Evgeni Malkin (34) and
James Neal (30). Neal's emergence as a Penguin was another key to the power play taking off. Hopefully, it was more due to Neal and adding a healthy Sidney Crosby to the mix will only help. The power play has inexplicably struggled in the past with both 87 and 71 though, so it's up to the coaches to come up with a way for them to coexist on the same unit, but not crowd each other on the ice.
Sullivan's absence also leaves a gaping hole in the Pens' top 6. I think it's a pretty safe bet that Malkin and Neal will remain paired up and that we'll see Crosby re-united with Pascal Dupuis. Which pair Chris Kunitz ends up with is even money at this point if you ask me, leaving a pretty good gig available for whatever forward gets it. While I am not a fan of handing a job to someone, I'd like to see Eric Tangradi or Dustin Jeffrey tried there, despite not really having earned it. The other guys on the roster (Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke for example) are great third liners and could be serviceable top 6 guys for short spurts, but they aren't permanent solutions. That, combined with the fact it's getting to be fish-or-cut-bait time with both Tangradi and Jeffrey, and I'd rather they get a look. Beau Bennett is a dark horse candidate, but I'm guessing Kennedy ends up in the top 6 again, contrary to the desires of many Pens fans. No matter who completes the top 6 though, seeing a healthy Malkin AND Crosby in it will be a welcome sight.
That takes us to goaltending. Marc Andre Fleury had arguably his best regular season last year, only to have it erased by a nightmare playoff. It's not fair to lay all of the blame at his pads (the team in front of him wouldn't have fared much better with Dominik Hasek in his prime), but he did earn every bit of his share. Many people speculated that at least part of Fleury's issues were because he was played too much, and that was at least in part to the coaches losing confidence in Brent Johnson. Again, Shero's actions would seem to support that as he wasted little time in trading for Tomas Vokoun and signing him to 2 year deal worth $4M. Vokoun is clearly the #2 guy, but will push Fleury for the top job. The staff will have no hesitation going to him if needed. With a shortened, compressed schedule, the addition of Vokoun could be one of the shrewdest moves of Shero's career.
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