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Carolina vs. The Metropolitan Division: Pittsburgh Penguins

Projected by many to win the Cup last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended up falling just short, losing to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals. Some expected this to be the end of the line for head coach Dan Bylsma because the team had a "Cup or bust" mentality going into the post-season but their front office kept a cool head and didn't make any major changes this summer. The Penguins may have come up short of expectations the last few years, but they've had the highest winning percentage in the NHL since Bylsma took over and are usually one of the best teams in the NHL under his control. Sticking with him for the next couple of years was probably the right call for GM Ray Shero.

Regular season success doesn't mean a whole lot to Pittsburgh, though because they've been there before and are more concerned with trying to win another Stanley Cup. They appeared to be on the right track to do that last season, having the top seed in the Eastern Conference basically clinched a month before the season was over. If going undefeated in the month of March wasn't enough to make them Cup favorites, Shero tried to beef up the roster by adding Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen and Brendan Morrow at the deadline, all of whom had playoff experience. 

Most of these acquisitions didn't have the impact Pittsburgh hoped they would, at least not in the playoffs. Iginla struggled at times, Morrow looked like he barely had anything left in the tank and was scratched, Murray was kept to a third pairing role and Jokinen played on the fourth line after Crosby returned to the lineup. Jokinen was the only one returning this year and that is probably a good thing because the Penguins were a great team before acquiring these veterans and should remain one of the top clubs in their division this next year.

Do they have what it takes to get over the hump and win another Cup, though? It's hard to say that now but after the jump, we'll review their off-season and look at how they shape up for next season.

Penguins at a Glance

GF/G 3.38
GA/G 2.48
FenClose 49.87
EV Sh% 9.65%
EV Sv% 0.933
PPSF/60 54.5
PP% 24.7
PKSA/60 48
PK% 79.6

There's a few signs here indicating that the Penguins might have a rough year ahead. They were a negative possession team that was buoyed by a high team shooting percentage and great goaltending at even strength. They also had a lethal power play which converted on nearly 15% of their shots. At the surface, it's easy to predict a decline but I don't think that will be the case.

Pittsburgh did have some mediocre possession numbers, but a lot of that was due to the moves they made at the deadline. This graph showing every team's half-season Fenwick Close percentage shows that the Pens got worse in the second half of the year which was after they added Morrow, Murray & Iginla. All three of these players are not very good at getting the puck up ice and the first two are boat anchors at even strength. They were also playing without Crosby for about the last month of the season, so it's easy to see why their underlying numbers sunk in the second half. With a healthy roster, they should be a much better team at even strength, which is bad news for the rest of the division.

As for their high shooting & save percentage, they should see some regression in both areas. The Pens have a lot of finishing talent on their roster and a few players who can sustain high shooting percentages, but it's still hard for teams to maintain a shooting percentage of around 9.5-10% in a full 82 game season. Offense probably won't be a concern, though. Goaltending could go either way because Fleury is coming off a strong year (followed by a miserable playoffs) but his career numbers have never been that great. Having Tomas Vokoun spell him and fill in when needed will go a long way, though.

All in all, I think the Pens will be in good shape as long as they stay healthy. They don't have the depth they used to have, but their talent at the top of the roster is pretty hard to beat.

Off-season Moves

Who's In? Who's Out
D Rob Scuderi RW Jarome Iginla
RW Matt D'Agostini LW Brendan Morrow
C Andrew Ebbett LW Tyler Kennedy
D Brendan Mikkelson RW Matt Cooke
RW Chris Conner D Douglas Murray
C Nick Drazenovic  
LW Harry Zolnierczyk  

A relatively quiet off-season for Ray Shero, as his biggest move was bringing back defenseman Rob Scuderi and signing Kris Letang to an eight year contract. The Letang signing was criticized by a lot because of his poor performance in the playoffs, but his body of work with the Penguins is nothing but impressive. He is Pittsburgh's best defenseman at controlling territorial play and one of the best offensive d-men in the league. The fact that he put up great numbers last season while playing with partners like Matt Niskanen & Mark Eaton should give you an idea of how good he is, so I like that the Pens decided to keep him around long-term.

As for the Scuderi signing, I thought it was a good move because they got him at a fairly low price. I'm not crazy about signing someone like him for four years, but $3.375 mil. per year is a decent price if his play doesn't fall off to much between now and 2017. The rest of the signings were just depth moves and not much more than that.

Getting Matt D'Agostini was a solid low-risk, decent-reward move because he was able to score at a pretty good rate not too long ago. Concussion issues have derailed his career, though and he has only 12 goals and 22 points in his last 84 games. Still, if he can stay healthy he might be able to off-set the loss of Tyler Kennedy on their third line. The rest I don't see playing in the NHL much aside from a few game, but Pittsburgh's bottom-six is wide open so we'll see what happens.

Overall, I think this off-season was a minor net-loss for the Penguins because while Scuderi is an upgrade over Murray, they lost a fir amount of depth in Kennedy & Cooke. Granted, Cooke took a step back last season due to not playing on a line with Jordan Staal anymore, but Pittsburgh will likely promote from within to fill these holes. Sometimes that approach works, but it's not always a guarantee.

2012-13 Usage

Forwards

Bylsma's strategy with the forwards last year was to give the tough minutes to Sutter & Crosby and do his best to get Malkin favorable matchups. That didn't always happen, but he completely buried Sutter's line in the defensive zone at even strength in an attempt to protect his bottom-six and it's fair to say that it worked out pretty well. Sutter isn't the play-driver that Staal was, but he is good enough to play this kind of role and should get better with time. It will be interesting to see how long he takes to adjust to new linemates, though and if Bylsma keeps using him in this fashion.

Also, Pascal Dupuis is pretty damn underrated.

Defense

Where Letang stands on here is a little surprising because he plays enough minutes that he is probably on the ice against other team's top lines, but apparently Bylsma tries to keep him away from that matchup. Instead, Brooks Orpik & Paul Martin get those assignments while Letang plays more of a secondary role with whoever is on Pittsburgh's second defense pairing. Scuderi did not play the toughs in LA last year, so he might get slotted along with Letang depending on how Bylsma uses Martin.

Projected Lineup

Forwards

Left Wing TOI/G Corsi% Center TOI/G Corsi% Right Wing TOI/G Corsi%
Chris Kunitz 18:01 54.8 Sidney Crosby 21:06 56.7 Pascal Dupuis 17:30 52.4
Jussi Jokinen 14:55 51.9 Evgeni Malkin 19:42 56.5 James Neal 17:28 54.2
Beau Bennett 12:18 47.4 Brandon Sutter 16:21 42.6 Matt D'Agostini 12:51 53.6
Tanner Glass 10:04 42.4 Joe Vitale 9:31 40.9 Craig Adams 11:09 42.9
Dustin Jeffrey 11:30 48.1            

Pittsburgh's first line will probably stay in-tact next year, but the rest of their lineup is tough to figure out. Right now, I have Jussi Jokinen taking over Morrow's spot on the second line. Bylsma used him exclusively as a center last year, but he can play wing and usually thrives with talented linemates. Him riding shotgun with Malkin could turn out nicely for the Pens. Another player who may get a chance with Malkin is youngster Beau Bennett, who saw a few games on Pittsburgh's top line last year. He has plenty of scoring talent, but still has a few things he needs to work on before taking on this kind of role. Jokinen is a little more efficient at driving the play, so that's why I have him on this line over Bennett for now.

If Bennett does play on the third line, then he could get tied down to a defensive role if Byslma uses Sutter in the same way he did last season. Sutter is a great defensive center, but he hasn't never been a player who can carry his line and drive the play forward. This is where they miss Staal, as he is very good at doing that even while playing extremely tough minutes. Sutter had serious issues with keeping play out of his own zone last year and it might continue into this season with his linemates being subject to change.

Adding D'Agostini was nice and Bennett should improve as he gets older, but forward depth remains a big issue for Pittsburgh as their stars had to carry the team for most of last season. Judging by the underlying numbers of their bottom-six for next year, this could remain a problem unless they make a few moves to improve the supporting cast.

Defense

Left Defense TOI/G Corsi% Right Defense TOI/G Corsi%
Paul Martin  25:19 50.1 Kris Letang  25:38 54
Brooks Orpik 22:17 44.6 Matt Niskanen 20:21 50.9
Rob Scuderi 21:47 51.1 Robert Bortuzzo 13:17 48.8
Simon Despres 15:06 52.6 Deryk Engelland 13:55 47.8

These defense pairs are subject to change, as Pittsburgh is a team that doesn't mind using two lefties or righties on the same pairing. This could be a problem if they decide to use Orpik & Scuderi together because those are pretty slow and aren't really capable of leading a breakout on their own. Orpik is also coming off one of the worst years of his career and may not be up to playing the toughs anymore. This is where adding Scuderi could be a nice, since he and one of Martin or Letang might form a nice first defense pairing if Bylsma is okay with giving the latter the big assignments.

Overall, Pittsburgh's defense is in decent shape although they aren't the fastest group in the NHL. Niskanen has blossomed into a decent top-four defenseman the last couple of years and it wont be long before Simon Despres is ready to contribute to a big role. He may have issues earning playing time, though since Bylsma tends to use Deryk Engellend over him to add "toughness." The Pens also have a lot of young defensemen in their system who could be ready as soon as this year so they have plenty of options.

Goaltending

Goaltender Sv%
Marc-Andre Fleury 0.910
Tomas Vokoun 0.917

Marc-Andre Fleury is the subject of all Internet ridicule nowadays but he is coming off a decent season with a .916 save percentage, an improvement over the previous year. The playoffs have been an issue for him, though and he ended up losing his starting job after posting a .883 save percentage in the first round last year. Despite how well Vokoun played, all indications are that Fleury will be the starter next year and Pittsburgh will just have to hope that he doesn't completely bottom-out and if he does, they have Vokoun to fall back on.

I have my doubts about Vokoun's durability since he had trouble staying healthy as Washington's starter and is 37 years old, but I think he is in a good situation now as Pittsburgh's 1 A/B goalie. That being said, the Pens goaltending is still a somewhat of a question mark because Fleury is kind of unpredictable and I'm not sure how many games Vokoun will/can start.

Possible Call-ups

Minors NHLE
Derrick Pouliot 24
Jayson Megna 8
Harrison Ruopp 0
Philip Samuelsson 5
Brian Dumoulin 12
Scott Harrington 9
Olli Maatta 16
Adam Payerl 8
Tom Kuehnhackl 13
Steve MacIntyre 0
Dominik Uher 5
Anton Zlobin 35
Andrew Ebbett 31
Brendan Mikkelson 6
Chris conner 24
Nick Drazenovic 31
Harry Zolnierczyk 11
Paul Thompson 18
Brian gibbons 15
Bobby Farnham 6

Most of these players are defensemen or guys the Penguins just signed to two-way deals and some of them could be called up this year if the Pens have issues rounding out their roster. Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta will likely spend another year in juniors but Dumoulin and Samuelsson could have a chance to make the roster sometime this year. I also think Andrew Ebbett or Nick Drazenovic could spend some time with the big club if Vitale struggles as the fourth line center. The former has plenty of NHL experience and is a capable bottom-six player.

The Final Word

Pittsburgh will probably finish in the top three of the division and the only way that doesn't happen is if both Crosby & Malkin are injured for a prolonged period of time. Pittsburgh managed to survive this two years ago, but there is less top-end talent on the roster now than there was then. If they stay healthy and their goaltending isn't completely terrible, they should be one of the best teams in the East but there isn't a ton of depth behind their stars and that prove to be an issue if the injuries pile up.

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