Pittsburgh Penguins


by Jim Rixner

1. Scoring depth.

After a disappointing first round playoff exit last spring, the Penguins dramatically revamped their team, highlighted by the trade addition of five-time 30 goal scorer Phil Kessel. They subbed out bad possession players in their bottom six -- Brandon Sutter, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie and Craig Adams -- for more effective players in Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen. They welcome back Pascal Dupuis from injury as well. The Pens are as deep of a team up front since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, as they’ve finally surrounded Crosby and Malkin by adding strong forwards, many of whom would be capable of playing up a line, if needed.

2. Skill.

The addition of Kessel looms large and will have a domino effect on the Pens roster. It not only gives Sidney Crosby his first dynamic, explosive skilled winger in years; Kessel will push winger Patric Hornqvist down a line to play with Evgeni Malkin. The top six figures to be rounded out by David Perron and Chris Kunitz, two players who have been productive in the past but had poor finishes in 2014-15. There’s also former first round pick Beau Bennett and 25-year-old Russian import Sergei Plotnikov in tow that could see opportunities to play with the big guns at times as well. A big knock on the Penguins has been their failure to put skill on the wings for No. 87 and No. 71. This season, that skill will be there.

3. Year 2 of Johnston.

Last season was Mike Johnston’s first as an NHL head coach, and at times it showed with in-game management and decision making. This year he will be more comfortable and even better prepared for how to handle the ups and downs of a long NHL season.

Johnston had the Pens three points out of first place in the division in mid-March before injuries set in and devastated the team, and they will be expected to be at that point again this year. Year 2 of Mike Johnston will hopefully bring more stability for the coach. The players who now know what to expect, and that comfortability ought to make for a more steady season.


by Jim Rixner

1. Going young on defense.

Pittsburgh has finally embraced a youth movement on defense, with Olli Maatta (21 years old), Derrick Pouliot (21) and Brian Dumoulin (24) expected to compose half of the lineup. Those three players only have a total of 146 career NHL regular season games under their belt (with Maatta’s 98 games making up the majority of that experience).

Over the past two summers the Penguins have seen many solid veteran defensemen -- Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik -- walk via free agency, and they haven’t spent precious salary cap space to replace them, instead opting to go very young. The Pens need their players to grow up in a hurry and be able to get the puck up to the talented forward group that is the strength of the team. Young players are prone to make mistakes along the way, but Pittsburgh seems committed to giving them the chance to develop into NHL level defensemen.

2. Injury susceptibility.

The Penguins are putting a lot of figurative eggs in the basket of Maatta and Kris Letang, their first pairing. In the past two years the duo has had a laundry list of injuries and ailments including ... mumps, two rotator cuff surgeries (on the same shoulder), thyroid cancer (Maatta), multiple concussions and a stroke (Letang).

Some of those issues are fluky, some are bad luck, but Maatta’s shoulder and Letang’s ability to avoid another concussion are huge concerns for the team. If they are sidelined at all, the Pens defense barely looks NHL-worthy and a trade will have to be made (with limited salary cap space and an already depleted prospect system) to add a NHL-level defenseman. Those often are expensive acquisitions.

3. Big and tough enough?

Pittsburgh’s fourth line might feature more skilled/offensive minded players like Bennett, Cullen. Newcomers like Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson and Sergei Plotnikov could factor in as well. But they don’t have a lot of the traditional size/toughness that the typical NHL fourth line usually has. Call it the Chicago or Tampa model, but the decisions made this summer have built the team around four lines capable of scoring over having rough and tough players.

Around the Metropolitan Division, several teams feature menacing players throughout their lineup. Pittsburgh doesn’t have an abundance of toughness. After being one of the NHL’s most penalized teams in the past few seasons, the Pens will look to emphasize skill over toughness this season. It remains to be seen if they’ll be able to be pushed around, especially defensively in front of the net.


1. What are the expectations for Phil Kessel’s first season in Pittsburgh?
2. Can David Perron and/or Chris Kunitz bounce back?
3. Will the young defense of the Penguins prove to be an Achilles heel?

Get the answers at Pensburgh.


by Jim Rixner

Boosted by the addition of Phil Kessel and a solid group of new depth forwards, the Penguins greatly improve scoring goals (their Goals For ranked a disappointing 18th league-wide last season) and make a run at the Metropolitan Division title. Ideally the young defensemen, all of whom can skate and move the puck well if veteran Rob Scuderi is kept as a depth player, improve with time over the season and help the forwards keep the puck out of the zone.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both near the top of the league in points, as they usually are in healthy seasons, and the power play should be a top-5 group as well with all the talent to burn. Marc-Andre Fleury gets about 40 wins again and probably a slightly above-average save percentage, with still a below-average perception among fans across the league.

The Penguins have as much firepower and skill as any team in the Eastern Conference. They ought to be a serious contender this season if the breaks go their way come playoff time, as they hope to do well and win games late in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.


by Jim Rixner

It seems like last season was a worst case scenario for the Penguins as they saw four of their top six defensemen get injured late in the season and the team limped down the stretch before weakly bowing out after five playoff games.

Health, as always with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is a crucial talking point. One of these years they have to have some luck, right? This year if any of Letang, Maatta or Fleury are on the shelf for a prolonged period of time, the team is in deep trouble. As currently constituted there isn’t a lot of depth to remain afloat in case of a significant injury to one of their best defenseman or starting goaltender. A late season injury (like Letang getting hurt after the trade deadline for the second season in a row) would effectively have Pittsburgh dead in the water before the playoffs even begin.

The Metropolitan should be a competitive division, and it should be a top-heavy one too with five or six teams that spend to the salary cap limit with playoff aspirations. The Pens have to have learned from last season that they can fall out of the playoff chase very easily, and having a couple of star players alone isn’t enough to guarantee a playoff spot. Last year it took until Game 82 to clinch a playoff berth, and if there’s injuries or a shaky defense, it’s conceivable the Pens could end up in a similar situation (or worse) this season.