After ranking 17th in the NHL last season in goals against, and being a nightmare defensively in the playoffs, giving up 30 goals in six playoff games, the Penguins did nothing in the off-season to upgrade their blueline.
One argument is that the Penguins got weaker personnel wise, trading Zbynek Michalek on draft day, the team’s best shot blocker and statistically, one of the NHL’s best shot blockers, averaging 2.32 blocked shots per game in 2011-2012.
If there’s hockey this season, the Penguins are banking on Paul Martin returning to the player he was in New Jersey, Brooks Orpik avoiding a decline in his play (there’s been a slight slip in his play), Matt Niskanen possibly playing a top-4 role, and young players such as Simon Despres ready to take the next step.
The one area where the Penguins possibly did upgrade defensively was with the signing of goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a 2 year, $4 million contract. The organization as a whole has not given up on Marc Andre Fleury but following last season’s collapse against Philadelphia, management and the coaching staff has made the decision to go into this season, whether it begins in December or January, with an open mind regarding the goaltender situation in the sense that if Vokoun becomes the better fit as the season progresses, he’s going to be the starter. There’s going to be no politics involved.
The obvious hope in the organization is that Fleury rebounds and earns the No. 1 job, but one area that could lead to Vokoun eventually getting the edge over Fleury is due to his puck handling ability, sources tell me. When evaluating the tape, I’m told the coaching staff especially head coach Dan Bylsma, have become increasingly frustrated with Fleury’s lack of puck handling skills, believing it hinders the Penguins team defense.
Vokoun’s know ability to take a more active in a team’s defense (handling the puck) will be seen as a plus for a coaching staff that puts a strong emphasis on a quick transition game and pushing the puck the other way.
One individual tells me against the Flyers, the Penguins staff felt Fleury’s inability to handle the puck was among the major issues in their struggles to slow down the Flyers forecheck as Fleury was not able to alleviate the constant pressure Pittsburgh’s defensemen were getting.
When evaluating the signing, Vokoun’s visibly superior puck handling skills was seen this summer by some in the organization as upgrading the Penguins team defense and the belief that┬áVokoun’s ability in that area will make the transition game even better.
It will be an interesting storyline to watch if this ridiculous lockout actually ends in the coming months.