Risk Factors: Pittsburgh Penguins edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Pittsburgh Penguins

1. The rookie head coach. That’s 57-year-old Mike Johnston, who’s spent the last six years behind the bench in WHL Portland. Aside from having no NHL head coaching experience — he was Marc Crawford’s right-hand man for eight years in Vancouver and L.A. — Johnston wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s first choice; that was Willie Desjardins, who opted to take the vacant Canucks gig instead.

So, is Johnston ready for this?

The Pittsburgh job is one of the NHL’s most complex. The Penguins have immense talent and are the only team in the league with two former Hart Trophy winners — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — but with that talent comes great expectations, and failure to meet said expectations can be costly… just ask Michel Therrien.

Or Dan Bylsma.

Or Ray Shero.

Johnston has tried to alleviate some of the pressure by preaching a “let’s have fun out there” mantra. From Yahoo:

“It’s so hard to get into the playoffs in the NHL, we’ve got to enjoy the process along the way,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to enjoy every win. We’ve got to enjoy great practices. We’ve got to enjoy getting in great shape as a group.”

Nice message, but will it work?

Johnston’s saying all the right things, but it’s important to remember he hasn’t faced any adversity yet, and that’s when things will get interesting — if the Penguins reiterated anything over the summer, it’s that failure has consequences. In addition to turfing Shero and Bylsma, the club dealt sniper James Neal to Nashville — just two season after inking him to a six-year extension — and let its longest-tenured player, Brooks Orpik, walk in free agency. It’s like that scene in Casino where all the dons are sitting around the courthouse; once the Pens lost to the Rangers, you knew people were gonna get clipped.

(It’s also worth mentioning failure has different meaning in Pittsburgh than other markets. Bylsma, for example, was fired with a .670 career winning percentage and one Stanley Cup on his resume.)

In short, the Pens are a “win now” team with little margin for error. Not exactly the best situation for a first-time coach to find himself in.

2. Are the bottom-six forwards any better? One of new GM Jim Rutherford’s first tasks on the job was to improve Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines, which failed to provide much of anything last season, especially in the playoffs. Enter Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and, depending on how his training camp tryout goes, Daniel Carcillo — they, along with incumbents Brandon Sutter and Marcel Goc, comprise the majority of the new bottom six.

But it’s not like Pittsburgh hasn’t tried this before.

Shero had a revolving door of depth forwards over the last two seasons: Tanner Glass, Andrew Ebbett, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow, Lee Stempniak, Taylor Pyatt and Chuck Kobasew, to name a few. Some, like Jokinen, worked out well; most failed to make an impact and moved on to different locales. Advanced stats suggest that Spaling, Goc, Comeau and Downie are quality possession players that can drive shot attempts, which is something the Penguins need to improve — but none of these guys are sure things.

Downie’s missed a boatload of time to injury over the last two seasons, Comeau’s on his fourth team in four years, Spaling’s never played outside of Barry Trotz’s regimented system in Nashville and Carcillo is, well, Carcillo.

3. Goaltending, as always. It’s an annual rite of passage to ask if Marc-Andre Fleury can recapture the form that saw him backstop the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2009. This year, though, that question comes with some addenda: Will newly-signed Thomas Greiss challenge for the No. 1 gig? And will murky futures have an effect on either?

Both Fleury and Greiss are UFAs after this season and, with WHL Edmonton standout Tristan Jarry still a few years away, Pittsburgh is essentially holding an open audition for its goaltending gig. This also marks the first time in Fleury’s career that contractual uncertainty becomes an issue; Pittsburgh inked him to a lengthy seven-year, $35 million deal after losing to Detroit in the ’08 Cup Final, and he’s pretty much been the starter ever since.

More, from the Globe and Mail:

There doesn’t seem to be much of a push, if any, to get a new contract in place for Fleury. How he performs this season and in the 2015 playoffs could heavily influence what approach the Penguins take under will new coach Mike Johnston and new general manager Jim Rutherford.

“We try to stress the process — following through with the process and trying to do the right things every day so you’re not looking too far ahead,” Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales said. “Marc’s good at that and that will obviously have to be his focus this year.”

“I just want to go play, go win,” said Fleury, who’s had his fair share of distractions during his tenure in Pittsburgh. “What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. I’m not worried too much about it.”

Fleury might not be worried, but should the Penguins be? Aside from his uncertain future, the club also has uncertainty with the backup position, where Greiss — who many figured was signed solely to push Fleury — is still locked in a battle with the incumbent, Jeff Zatkoff, for the No. 2 spot.