PART I: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS OFF-SEASON GAME PLAN
By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
With the 2015 season coming to a disappointing close for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team must now take a long, deep look at its make-up this summer. The moves made last off-season and into the 2014-15 season may have been high in quantity and attention, but ultimately, they proved to be low in the kind of quality impact needed. So while the summer of 2014 may have been “change for the sake of change,” this year’s changes need to be far more tactical and meaningful.
Any purposeful change for next year first requires an honest evaluation of the previous season, clearly identifying strengths, weaknesses, and even a few causes for failure. The three major findings – at least in respect to guiding off-season plans – are the following:
Youth Movement: The Penguins must become substantially younger, allowing the team to sustain the full season, make improvements to the parts throughout the year, and allow for adjustments the line combinations, defensive pairings, special teams units, and, as a whole, team systems throughout the year. An added benefit to this is that younger players generally have less of a cap hit, allowing greater flexibility and trials in that area.
The Penguins were a good first period team, scoring 57 goals while allowing just 42 (+15). That number dropped to 46-43 (+3) in the second period and slumped to 43-46 (-3) in the third.
The team never won when trailing after two periods (0-18-5), averaging a league-worst 1.09 goals per game (the ENTIRE game) in the 23 games where this happened.
The average age of the team, when counting all players who participated in 15 or more games this season, was nearly 30.
They started with very few players who were tabbed to get significantly better as the season wore on, with perhaps Olli Maatta being the only player in that category, given that the best expectations for Beau Bennett are no expectations at all.
Deploy the Defensemen: The younger defensemen in the system must play at the NHL level. The measurable performance of this group did not drop much without the top defensemen, and this group then has the potential to out-perform this year’s numbers by being regulars on the roster. This area conveniently ties the first point and the next point together.
Despite having multiple injuries that put defensemen on the shelf, the rest of the defensive corps – with the considerable aid of Marc-Andre Fleury – still played solid in its own end for much of the season. The Penguins averaged 2.33 goals against while Olli Maatta was in the lineup, and that number only inflated to 2.56 in the games without him.
Even without Letang, Maatta, Ehrhoff, and Pouliot all out at once for all playoff games, the team only yielded a GAA of 2.12, which was less than any of the numbers cited above. The depth on defense is very capable (and younger and still getting better).
Focus Forward: The crop of forwards, particularly on the wings and specifically in the Top 6, obviously need a major upgrade. The centers are set on the top 3 lines if the Penguins stay committed to Brandon Sutter, but their impact is still limited without help on their wings. Fourth-line players, who inexplicably took most of the attention the past 11 months, are readily available in the NHL and do not often change the overall composition of the team. The Penguins must obtain and/or develop wingers who can play on the top 2 lines.
The Penguins’ core group of centers – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Brandon Sutter – combined for 77 goals, which was 35.5% of the team’s goal output. Only winger Patric Hornqvist’s 25 goals broke up a 1-2-3 ranking of that group.
Chris Kunitz had 17 goals, and Blake Comeau was a pleasant surprise with 16 goals (as well as a projected 20+ goal season had he not missed 21 games). But Kunitz, at age 35, had only 2 goals once February started, and Comeau was only able to contribute 5 goals from the point of his injury on 12/22 and his final 29 games.
The two forwards acquired in late-season trades – Daniel Winnik and Maxime Lapierre – pitched in a total of just 2 goals, while the departed Mark Arcobello, who played for 5 teams this season, had 0 goals in 10 games with Pittsburgh but posted 17 goals in 67 games elsewhere.
David Perron had 9 goals in his first 16 games with the team from January 3rd to February 11th, and the Penguins went 7-5-3 during that span, which included 13 of 16 games against playoff teams. Comeau and Perron both scored on February 11th – a 4-1 win over Detroit – so there was very little offered from the trio of Kunitz, Comeau, and Perron from that point on. Just 9 goals in 28 games, to be exact.
Seems obvious enough.
Making it happen first requires that narrow focus and then a detailed evaluation of the current line-up – including salaries – against a potential line-up or line-up options. As cited, the forwards need the most attention. Any gaps will need to be addressed through free agency, since the lack of a first-round pick precludes any expectation of getting help through that method.