Pittsburgh Penguins

Under pressure: Mike Johnston


The Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Dan Bylsma because claiming division titles isn’t good enough for a franchise trying to win more than one championship while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still in their prime. Mike Johnston was hired to do better, but that’s not what happened in 2014-15. Penguins executive David Morehouse claimed that the team never seriously considered firing Johnston after that, but will that change if Pittsburgh fails to live up to expectations again?

Johnston’s Penguins were effective for much of the regular season, but a late season collapse nearly ended their playoff berth streak and they dropped four out of five games against the New York Rangers in the first round. Internally, injuries were reportedly viewed as a primary cause for the Penguins’ 2014-15 shortcomings and it certainly is true that they didn’t have Kris Letang or Pascal Dupuis during that first round series.

At the same time, the team’s scoring depth was a big problem too and it’s one GM Jim Rutherford hopes he addressed this summer with the additions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen. Adding a player of Kessel’s caliber in particular raises expectations, but it also emphasizes the immediacy of the Penguins’ window for a few different reasons.

First and foremost, the Penguins gave up a top prospect in Kasperi Kapanen and a conditional first-round draft pick to get him, further depleting their pool of prospects. Secondly, Phil Kessel will turn 28 in October and while that’s not old even by NHL standards, it is roughly in line with the ages of Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of that group, Fleury was the first to enter his 30s and as the rest of them follow suit, diminishing returns will become an increasing concern that’s compounded by the fact that they’re all signed to expensive long-term contracts that consume a lot of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Which is to say that Pittsburgh can’t afford to be squandering seasons and if Johnston isn’t the guy to lead them to a Stanley Cup championship, then the Penguins have to make a change sooner rather than later. That’s not to suggest that Johnston shouldn’t be the coach in 2015-16, but it does mean that the pressure on him to deliver the best possible outcome couldn’t be higher.

Pittsburgh Penguins ’15-16 Outlook


The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the league’s best forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but last season they lacked the offensive depth to sufficiently back them up. GM Jim Rutherford is hoping he addressed that issue this summer, but there is still a big X-factor with this team.

Starting with the positives, newcomer Phil Kessel is one of the league’s top goal scorers and pairing him up with a superb playmaker like Crosby should make for a great combination. Combined with Patric Hornqvist, Malkin, David Perron, and Chris Kunitz and the Penguins have the potential to feature two very effective lines. Summer additions Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino will also provide the Penguins with some all-important depth up the middle.

After that though, their bottom-six gets a little hazy.

Theoretically, Pascal Dupuis would be an ideal presence on their third line and wouldn’t look out of place if the Penguins opt to put him in their top-six, but he’s also played in just 55 games over the last two seasons due to a torn ACL and a blood clot. Even if we presume that his health issues are behind him, one has to wonder if the long layoffs have negatively impacted the 36-year-old forward. The Penguins might be penciling Beau Bennett for a third line role as well, but he’s had injury problems too and hasn’t developed as hoped.

Health issues have unfortunately been a running theme for the Penguins.

They’re counting on Kris Letang to anchor their defense, but the 69 games he played last season represented a personal best since 2010-2011. Even Malkin is a question mark at this point, as he’s only surpassed the 70-game mark once since 2008-2009.

Now to be fair, if the biggest knock is “they might get hurt,” then that’s arguably a sign that there are not a lot of issues to begin with.

After all, the Penguins core — when healthy — is among the most impressive in the league. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can be firmly listed as part of that foundation as well as his performance over the last two campaigns has run contrary to the old narrative that he gets worse under the heightened pressure of the playoffs.

The jury is still out on the Penguins’ depth though and those aforementioned injury problems can’t be casually dismissed. This is a team that has been among the most prone to health problems from 2009-10 onward, according to Man Games Lost.

If that trend ends though, then this should be a very dangerous team.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?


For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

Poll: Will Kessel score 40?


In acquiring Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh landed one of the NHL’s premier snipers — a five-time 30-goal scorer that, according to head coach Mike Johnston, will open training camp playing alongside arguably the NHL’s best set-up man in Sidney Crosby.

So, unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of talk about how much Kessel’s going to score.

Kessel’s former coach in Toronto, Ron Wilson, sees him netting “at least” 40 goals in his first year as a Penguin. Pundits have since debated various over/under totals (see here and here and here), but the 40 benchmark seems to be the one most identify with.


Well for starters, Kessel’s never got there before. His career high is 37 — achieved twice — and few have forgotten last year’s disappointing campaign, in which he only found the back of the net 25 times.

There’s also no real guarantee who his center will be.

While Johnston suggested Kessel will start with Crosby, it’s unclear if they’ll stick together beyond the preseason.

“We have eight exhibition games, so with the games we want to try combinations together so we’re ready for the beginning of the season,” Johnston said, per NHL.com. “We want to give guys a chance to play together, but we also want to take a look at some different looks in practice. So don’t get enamored if some practice there are some different combinations.

“We need to take a look at it as we head in and approach the beginning of the season.”

Some, like NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, argue that Kessel is actually a better fit with Evgeni Malkin — who, you’ll recall, propelled James Neal to his first (and only) 40-goal campaign in 2011-12.

(Neal is also the last Pens winger to score 40 goals in a single season, for what it’s worth.)

So there are plenty of variables floating around.

Regardless of where he plays or who he plays with, one thing is for certain — next year, Kessel will have the most talented centers of his professional hockey career. Does that translate into a 40-goal campaign?

Vote away…

Looking to make the leap: Derrick Pouliot


Is this the year Derrick Pouliot transitions from promising prospect to full-time pro?

He seems to think so.

“I think I’m capable of being a reliable defender in this league. I think I can produce even more offensively, too,” Pouliot said earlier this summer, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s really about taking a two-way role, not giving up anything and creating some chances for us.

“I’ll come into camp in shape and be able to handle some more minutes.”

Last season, Pouliot looked primed to make the leap. He made his NHL debut in December and eventually replaced an injured Olli Maatta on Pittsburgh’s blueline, impressing onlookers through 34 games until an injury of his own prematurely ended the campaign.

While it was a good showing from a kid that only turned 21 in January — Pouliot racked up seven points while averaging 17:33 TOI — the former WHL Portland standout only provided a glimpse of what he could do.

Now, the Pens want a much bigger look.

They also need it.

Pittsburgh’s defense took a hit this offseason and, as a result, Pouliot’s role is bound to increase. Blueline minutes are there for the taking: Paul Martin, who averaged nearly 23 per game last season, is now in San Jose while Christian Ehrhoff, who averaged nearly 22, is in L.A.

Rob Scuderi turns 37 in December and seems primed for a (further) diminished role, and it remains to be seen if the Ben Lovejoy-for-Simon Despres trade will ever work out in the Pens’ favor.

So, enter Pouliot.

The eighth overall pick in 2012, he’s expected to shoulder a significant load this year, despite it being (essentially) his first full NHL campaign. And this isn’t any ordinary team he’s looking to leap into; Pittsburgh made major splashes throughout the summer, none bigger than the Phil Kessel acquisition, and is a legit Eastern Conference contender.

In short, the pressure’s on for Pouliot.

“I definitely know the expectations, that’s for sure,” he told NHL.com. “I know I have to be ready when the season comes around, what I have to do to be ready. It’s a little different in that aspect, that’s for sure.

“I’m pretty anxious. I feel like I can take on a bit of a bigger role.”