March of the Penguins: Season Preview

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By recent standards, the 2014-15 edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins could not be quantified as anything other than a massive disappointment.

After spending the better part of a decade as one of the elite franchises in the National Hockey League, last year’s Penguins, under rookie head coach Mike Johnston, regressed to just another playoff bubble team, waiting until the last day of the season to clinch a playoff berth and falling in five quick games to the New York Rangers in the first round.

But it appears those days might be a distant memory.

General Manager Jim Rutherford – like Johnston, entering his only second year with the franchise – pulled a rabbit out of his hat this offseason.  It started with his shocking acquisition of Phil Kessel, one of the most dangerous offensive players in the entire league.

A disappointment in Toronto, where he had to be the franchise player, Kessel folded under the enormous pressure that comes with playing for arguably the highest-profile team in the NHL.

In Pittsburgh, that won’t be the case, as he can function as a core player but not the core player. Whether he plays alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Kessel should experience a resurgence with the Penguins and challenge for the league goal-scoring title.

But Rutherford wasn’t done there.

He made another savvy move in shipping Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks for Nick Bonino.  Sutter never really fit in Pittsburgh, where he might have been miscast as the third-line center.  His trade cleared up valuable salary-cap space, which Rutherford promptly used to sign versatile bottom-six forward Eric Fehr, who provides much-needed size, grit and penalty-killing ability.

All these moves, and the Penguins’ group of forwards is now hardly recognizable.  Gone are the plodding skaters who are all but useless in the offensive zone.  In their place are quick, dangerous players who make the Penguins the prototype for the new NHL with its emphasis on speed, skill and offense from all four lines.

These Penguins definitely have holes.  They start on the blue line, where Rutherford elected not to pursue a veteran defenseman, choosing to finally give his talented prospects a chance with the big club.  The youngsters will probably experience some growing pains, and the team will definitely need to trade for another defenseman during the season, but they give the Penguins the speed and talent largely missing from past teams.

In the top pairing of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are two players who both have missed significant time in their careers with injuries.  Namely, Letang’s concussion record and Maatta’s history with shoulder injuries are a reason for concern.  But surely, after two consecutive years as the NHL’s most injury-riddled club, the Penguins are due for a change in fortune.

Luck might just be the key to this season.  As far as talent and depth goes, the Penguins rank among the league’s best.  They have some pieces missing, but what team doesn’t?

And who’s to say that Rutherford won’t find those pieces at the trade deadline or before?  He’s certainly done a bang-up job so far.  The only thing that appears able to keep Crosby, Malkin and Co. from challenging for another Stanley Cup is injuries.

After so many years with the Blackhawks and the Kings of the world, you’d think Lady Luck would want to try a Penguins jersey for size.