Summer of Change for The Penguins?

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.

Changes could be in store this summer for the Penguins.

Changes could be in store this summer for the Penguins.

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.

9 Comments

  1. Scuderi might be a UFA this summer if I am not mistaken ;)

  2. I think after bylsma goes, shero will start construction on the blueline by getting younger and quicker. Letang and Martin will likely be traded to free up some space, with Letang hopefully bringing back a big forward with some scoring touch. Kunitz Malkin and Neal is a line that needs to be together, so with Beau Bennett ready to play top 6, we just need that other physical rugged forward to team up with Crosby. Simon Despres is ready and needs to play some games to hone his skills, you cant teach 6’4″ 225 lbs and he can skate like crazy. Fleury? I keep him, the defense played like total garbage in front of him with turnovers galore. Brian Doumoulin (sp?) is ready for a look too. Bylsma does not like young players for some reason and opted to play cavemen like Derek Engelland instead, who can barely move. Get a coach that knows some defense and things will improve vastly. The pieces are there to make any moves necessary, shero isn’t afraid to roll the dice and I like it.

  3. Pittsburgh would be insane to trade Letang. I’m sure the Sharks are already eyeballing Depuis. Throw in Letang for Brent Burns…yeah, that works for me!

  4. 1. Trade Fleury for picks/prospects
    2. Trade Jokinen for Neuvirth (something with that as the base, no idea on their respective values)
    3. Re-sign Malkin to a 8 year, $70-$80 million deal ($8.75-$10 million per)
    4. Re-sign Letang to a 7 year, $42-$45 million deal ($6-$6.5 million per)
    5. Re-sign Murray to a 2 year, $5 million deal ($2.5 million per)
    6. Re-sign Dupuis to a 3 year, $9 million deal ($3 million per)
    7. Re-sign Cooke to a 2 year, $4 million deal ($2 million per)
    8. Re-sign Morrow to a 2 year, $5 million deal ($2.5 million per)
    9. Re-sign Adams to a 2 year, $1.5 million deal ($.75 million per)

    Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis
    Bennett-Malkin-Neal
    Morrow-Sutter-Cooke
    Glass-Vitale-Adams

    Letang-Despres
    Martin-Orpik
    Murray-Engelland/Dumoulin

    Vokoun-Neuvirth

    Easy. Don’t need a blowup.

  5. The Pens will not trade Letang, because he is a nominee for the Norris Trophy and by far their best offensive D-Man. And D-Men like Karlsson, Subban, Letang, Weber, Suter… don’t grow on trees and are extremely hard to replace via trade! And it takes more years to develop a talented d-man than forwards!
    I think they will resign Letang and try to trade Paul Martin. His play is to inconsistent for his cap-hit!
    Would have liked Gonchar back for a year (he signed a 2 year contract in Dallas) because the Pens top D-Prospects (Maata, Pouliot, Dumoulin and Depres) are not ready yet!
    I really like(d) Fleury but they had a lot of patience and now it seems they trusted him too long! Vokoun is a solid goalie but I don’t think he’s the guy to lead you too a SC! So the question is if they trade Fleury who will be the replacement?
    Malkin will be resigned for the same money as Crosby. Dupuis should be resigned too if his demands are reasonable! Let Iginla (to expensive to resign) und Murray (slow and to expensive) walk away via FA.
    Try to sign or trade for guys like Clarkson, Bickell or even Penner for top 6 minutes and go after Hendricks for the bottom lines.
    Try to get a proven Shutdown D-Man (Scuderi?).
    Thoughts?

  6. Personally, I don’t think Vokoun was the issue in the early exit for Pitts. They couldn’t score. Loosing two games by one goal when you arguably have the biggest offensive threats in the league is a problem.
    The second game aside this team did well defensively, but didn’t have the two way game they should have.

    To me, guys like Iginla and the other deadline pick ups, had extremely poor showings against the Bruins. They were all too slow and too small against the big physical Bruins.

    Pitts is used to teams back peddling when they storm in the zone. Boston stood up at the line and kept them to the outside. Great job by Boston…..and I hate the Bruins.

  7. What a poor article. You promised what you see the pens doing and you only stated the obvious. What a waste of time.

    • I delivered as promised exactly what I thought the Penguins could do. Sorry if it seems so “obvious”. Your response was disappointing. You complain for the sake of doing so without offering up specifics to substantiate it.

      Were you expecting me to dream up trades which would never happen? Would you prefer I resurrect the infamous “Malkin to the Kings” rumor? A bold fantasy coaching change in which Scotty Bowman comes out of retirement? Or the ghost of Sam Pollock takes over as GM?

      • +1