It’s that time of year again: hockey season is back, and for the Pittsburgh Penguins that means another chance to capture a second Stanley Cup that has so long eluded captain Sidney Crosby and his merry band of fellow flightless birds.
As with any new season, there are loads of questions that still need to be answered before the season starts, and even more that will be answered as the season plays out. But not to worry, I’ve mapped out what I think are the biggest questions going into the season, and broken them down by position.
And as far as predictions go, how the season shakes out could be anyones guess, but it’s my (and just about everyone else’s) esteemed opinion that the Pens will finish first in the new Metropolitan Division, as well as the entire Eastern Conference.
Now, on with the questions.
Goaltending: As has become the trend in recent years, the Penguins goaltending situation will be at the forefront of the team’s affairs. Marc-Andre Fleury has always been a fair-to-solid goaltender in the regular season, and while everyone is well aware of his playoff struggles, he is not the goaltending variable in question, ironically enough. No, with backup Tomas Vokoun out indefenitly with a blood clot in his pelvis, who the Penguins choose to back up MAF seems like the bigger variable at play here.
GM Ray Shero has two serviceable options in AHL backstoppers Jeff Zatkoff and Tristian Jarry. With Zatkoff coming off a solid season in the American Hockey League, it looks like he will be the #2 guy, at least for the time being. While both are solid prospects, neither has NHL experience, so how either of them handle the Show, should they make it there, is anybody’s guess.
If goaltending continues to become an issue and Vokoun sits out longer than expected, the Pens could look at bringing in a more tested veteran via trade. The one thing that is for certain, however, is that with all the uncertainty in net, Marc-Andre Fleury will have to step up and play the best hockey of his career.
Forwards: Offense has never been a problem for Pittsburgh, the team that led the league in goals last year. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are arguably the two best players in the league, but the offseason loss of Matt Cooke will surely shake up the line a bit. Clearly, Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis found an unbelievable chemistry that can’t and won’t be touched on the top line, but after that it gets a little hairier.
For starters, deciding between Beau Bennett and Jussi Jokinen to play on the left wing with Malkin and James Neal. Coach Bylsma has stated that he will be experimenting with both players on the second line, with the other dropping down to the third line.
Like I said before, the loss of Matt Cooke in the offseason is a big blow to the penalty kill, as well as a bottom six that, in my opinion, is one of the weakest in the league. The third line will most likely be Bennett/Jokinen at LW, Brandon Sutter at center, and either rookie Matt D’Agostini or waiver-wire pickup Chuck Kobasew at RW. The 4th line will likely remain Tanner Glass/Joe Vitale/Craig Adams, although rookie Chris Connor is still hanging around and could make the squad.
Honestly, I don’t see what Tanner Glass brings to the table, so any way to get him out of the lineup and give someone their shot is OK by me. The same goes for Kobasew, if he makes the roster (which I don’t think he will). It’ll be interesting to see for sure.
God, I miss Matt Cooke already.
Defense: Perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition the Penguins made was signing former Pen Rob Scuderi to a four-year deal. While I think his speed and his better years are behind him, he’s still a better shutdown defenseman than whatever they have now. He’ll most likely play on the first pairing with Kris Letang once Letang comes back from a knee injury (however long that may be).
I’d have to guess Martin/Orpik is your second pairing, and some combination of Engeland/Niskanen/Bortuzzo making up the third line. It looks like Olli Maata will get a nine game look at in the NHL before being sent back to junior, which will be interesting, to say the least. With the Pens in dire straits with the salary cap, Matt Niskanen has emerged as the favorite trade candidate to free up space. If he does get moved, I hope Bortuzzo gets his shot and gets called up. He’s had a solid camp and his nasty side could be just what the Penguins need.