Having been swept out of the 2013 Eastern Conference by the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the off-season seeking answers for why their offense-laden team was held to just two goals in four games by the Bruins.
If, when this series began, someone told me the Bruins would not only sweep the Penguins, but hold Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Jarome Iginla scoreless, and limit Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis to just one point each, I’d have advised them to stop abusing solvents.
The Penguins loaded up for a Stanley Cup run this year, acquiring Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen leading up to the April 3 trade deadline. With the salary cap dropping next season to $64.3 million, they entered the playoffs with roughly $7.8 million in projected cap space and five roster spots to fill for next season.
Iginla, Morrow and Murray were strictly rental players. Dupuis is also an unrestricted free agent, whose value has reached the point where the Penguins risk losing him to this summer’s free agent market.
A Cup run had to be made this year, as management needs some time to sort out the finances to re-sign Malkin and Letang to expensive new contracts before they become UFAs next summer. Given the depth in offensive firepower, the Penguins were considered among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year.
The first sign something was amiss, however, came in their conference quarterfinal against the underdog NY Islanders, who used speed and physical play to expose the weaknesses in the Penguins defense, pushing that series to six games before being undone by their own defensive shortcomings.
In the conference semifinal against the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins appeared to overcome their defensive problems while using their superior offense to eliminate the rebuilding Sens in five games.
Against the Bruins, however, their defensive weaknesses were once again exposed, as was their lack of big, physical scoring forwards capable of driving to the net and creating havoc in front of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.
Once upon a time, Iginla and Morrow would’ve capably filled that role, but age and injuries caught up to the duo, rendering them ineffective against the Bruins.
The biggest surprise, of course, was the Penguins top scorers being limited to just two goals in four games, with superstars Crosby and Malkin held scoreless in four straight games for the first time in their professional careers.
Crosby and Malkin continually tried to stickhandle and finesse their way through the Bruins checkers, but rarely found their way into scoring position. When they did, their shots were blocked, or Rask would make the save, or there would be no teammate in scoring position to receive their passes.
Put simply, the Bruins outplayed the Penguins in nearly every aspect of the game.
Rask was outstanding in goal. The Bruins penalty killers stymied the Penguins power-play. Pittsburgh’s defense, while it improved as the series went on, still struggled to contain both the swift, physical Bruins forwards and their defensemen, who jumped into the rush at every opportunity. The Bruins dominated the Penguins in the faceoff circle, and did an excellent job keeping the Penguins top scorers out of the prime scoring areas.
So, what changes could Penguins GM Ray Shero have in store this summer?
Replacing head coach Dan Bylsma could be one option. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins over the past four seasons failed to regain those championship heights under Bylsma’s watch. Against the Bruins, he couldn’t find a solution for the checking blanket thrown over this best players.
Trading or buying out goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is another option. Since backstopping the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury has struggled in the playoffs, and over his last ten playoff starts gave up forty goals. For whatever reason, his play was erratic, and Bylsma eventually lost confidence in him.
It’s been suggested GM Ray Shero would be unwilling to move Fleury because he’s considered part of their core, but if Shero could trade Jordan Staal last year when the center wouldn’t come to terms on a new contract, he could dump a struggling Fleury.
Salary cap space provides another incentive to trade or buy out Fleury. He makes $5 million per season against the cap over the next two seasons, money which could be freed up to bolster depth elsewhere in the lineup. Vokoun already has a season remaining at an affordable $2 million, meaning Shero could shop for a promising young NHL goalie (Jonathan Bernier?) or promote one (Eric Hartzell?) to back up Vokoun next season and eventually become his successor.
It’s also been suggested Malkin or Letang could be moved. While either would fetch a handsome return (especially Malkin), I doubt Shero goes to that extreme. While Crosby remains the franchise player, he’s also got a concussion history, making it necessary to retain Malkin. Letang, meanwhile, is their best puck-moving defensemen and among the best in the league in that regard. He could prove difficult to suitably replace.
The Penguins currentlyhave only five players under contract for 2014-15 at a cap payroll of $24.6 million. Assuming the salary cap increases (and it will) back to at least $70 million, the Penguins will have more than enough to re-sign Malkin and Letang long-term, leaving plenty to re-sign other key players and finding skilled replacements for departed free agents. Should they dump Fleury’s salary, they’ll have even more cap space.
It’s also apparent the Penguins need a big, skilled power forward to bang and crash in front of an opponent’s net, plus another strong physical presence on their blueline.
They missed Jordan Staal’s two-way presence in the Bruins series. He had a significant, positive impact in their 2008 run to the Cup Final and their 2009 championship. Brandon Sutter, who came over to Pittsburgh in last June’s trade which sent Staal to Carolina, is a good third line center but lacks Staal’s two-way skills.
During their run to the 2009 Stanley Cup, the Penguins had gritty, physical defensemen like Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi sharing the shutdown defense role with Brooks Orpik. They haven’t been the same defensively since losing those two to free agency in the summer of 2009, forcing Orpik to carry most of the shutdown defense role.
Shero won’t engage in a major rebuild, but the inability to return to the Stanley Cup Final since 2009 combined with this year’s humiliating elimination from the Conference Final could result in some significant changes for the Penguins.