Five reasons the Penguins will be better in 2014

Crosby and the Penguins will be a better team in 2014.

Crosby and the Penguins will be a better team in 2014.

It’s been quite the offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Out are Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero, as well as about a half-dozen players including fan favorites Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen.

In is head coach Mike Johnston and GM Jim Rutherford, as well as a whole slew of new faces that will soon don the Black and (Vegas) Gold.

And while some see these off-season moves (the loss of Neal, in particular) as weakening the team, I’m taking a more positive outlook.  In fact, I’m confident the Penguins will most definitely be a better team than the one that fell to the Rangers in the second round of the playoffs this past spring.

Not convinced yet?  Here’s five reasons why.

#5 – Mike Johnston’s system:  

Usually I’m not one to start acting like an expert on a coaches system before I’ve seen it in action, but after reading and watching some tape of Portland, Johnston’s junior team before he came to Pittsburgh, I’m excited.  A coach who emphasizes carrying the puck through the neutral and into the offensive zone instead of dumping and chasing seems tailor-made to a team that employs Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, not to mention all the young, offensively-talented blue liners that will see action for Pittsburgh this season.  Speaking of which..

#4 – Improved blue-line: 

With the departure of Orpik, Niskanen, and Deryk Engelland in free-agency, Pittsburgh’s defense corps will look radically different in 2014.  While they still have to figure out what the hell to do with Rob Scuderi, there’s no shortage of high-upside replacements ready to come up.  Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, and Derrick Pouliot will all see time with the big club this year, joining Kris Letang, UFA prize Christian Erhoff, Olli Maatta and Paul Martin on the Pens blue line. Lack of speed and youth were major knocks against the defense last season.  I have a feeling this year will be quite different.

#3 – The emergence of Beau Bennett and/or Kasperi Kapanen:

Bennett has struggled to stay healthy since the Pens drafted him in the first round in 2010.  Off-season wrist surgery and a full summer to heal should (hopefully) do away with that.  Pens fans have seen glimpses of Bennett’s release in the past, but now the opportunity to slot in on Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin’s wing should help Bennett break out into the offensive talent we’ve been clamoring to see.  Kapanen was taken in the first round this year, and has wowed Pens exec’s with his development.  At this point, he’s probably a bit of a reach to make the team full time, but I have a feeling he’ll at least get a look out of the gate.  If he does manage to stick, he just may be the winger Crosby has been looking for all along.

#2 – Thomas Greiss: 

If it sounds weird that I chose a backup goaltender as a reason for overall team improvement, that’s cause it is.  But hear me out.  In addition to being a better backup choice than Jeff Zatkoff, Greiss’s presence as a feasible starting option may just be the driving force behind a re-emergence of Marc-Andre Fleury as an above-average goaltender.  Either that, or Griess pushing for the starting role will damage MAF’s psyche beyond repair and he collapses.  Tough to say.

#1 – Depth, depth, depth: 

The Penguins were a woefully inadequate club without Crosby or Malkin on the ice this year.  Jim Rutherford set about addressing these issues in the offseason, and now the Pens third and fourth lines look a hell of a lot better than they did in April.  Gone are deadweight pieces Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale and Taylor Pyatt, with Craig Adams set to spend the majority of his last year in the press box.  Replacements like Marcel Goc, Blake Comeau, Nick Spalling, and Steve Downie should take some of the pressure of Crosby and Malkin, and make the Pens a more well-rounded team from top to bottom.