Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pool Outlook for Pittsburgh

In the 2011 season, I think everyone learned a lot about the Pittsburgh Penguins and why they were so good over the past few years.  Despite injuries to their two best players for the bulk of the season, the Penguins continued to put wins up on the board and make it into the playoffs.  The Penguins depth was extremely resilient in light of their health situation, but unfortunately, they ran into a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had their offense wake up in the nick of time to eliminate the Pens in the opening round of the playoffs.

I would think that everyone believed that Marc-Andre Fleury would have another good season with the Penguins, but if you asked anyone at the start of the year that he would lead the team in pool scoring, I don't think anyone would have said yes.  With superstar forwards going down, it was up to Fleury to lead the way as the backstop, proving that he is a very good goalie, not just a guy with pads on behind a solid offense.  Fleury made 65 appearance for the Penguins in 2011, picking up 36 wins, 3 shutouts and 1 assist for 79 points, ranking him 22nd overall and 13th among all goalies.  Sure, his numbers would have been much better with scoring help, but those are good numbers nevertheless.

For quite some time after he was injured, Sidney Crosby was still leading the team in points, even sitting in the top 10 in league scoring.  Sadly, he never recovered from his concussion after the Winter Classic and finished the year with 66 points in 41 games, ranking 48th in pool scoring, 31st among forwards.  Only one other forward on the team finished in the top 100 among forwards, Chris Kunitz had 48 points in 65 games, which shows you just how badly the Penguins offense suffered.  Rounding out the top six forwards, James Neal (45 points in 79 games between Dallas and Pittsburgh), Tyler Kennedy (45 points in 79 games), Pascal Dupuis (37 points in 81 games) and Evgeni Malkin (37 points in 43 games).  As you could see, the health of the forwards was pretty bad all year long.

The defense did get a bit of a facelift in order to get more offense, but it wasn't in quite as bad shape as the forwards in the year.  Three blueliners finished in the top 100 of defense scoring, led by Kristopher Letang (50 points in 82 games), Paul Martin (24 points in 77 games) and Zbynek Michalek (19 points in 73 games).  Those were the three players they needed to have step up and they did an admirable job, considering the circumstances through the year.  All three should have some pool consideration for the 2012 season.

Behind Fleury, the Penguins had a steady back-up in Brent Johnson, who actually had a better points/60 minutes played ratio than the starter, picking up 29 points in 1,296 minutes played in 2011, ranking him 35th among all goalies in points.  Johnson was a very good compliment to the team and played well when the starter needed his rest.  He was a top end back-up and likely will continue to be in the 2012 season.

2012 Pool Outlook
The table for the 2012 Penguins team does look a little strange, especially since it is sorted by points scored in the 2011 season. Nevertheless, the names on there are fairly impressive and if everything goes well next season, I think we should be seeing a fully restored 2013 table, with names where they should be, according to their point totals.

Sidney CrosbyKris LetangMarc-Andre Fleury
Chris KunitzPaul MartinBrent Johnson
James NealZbynek Michalek
Evgeni MalkinBen Lovejoy
Matt CookeBrooks Orpik
Jordan StaalDeryk Engelland
Mark LetestuMatt Niskanen
Craig Adams

Salary CapCurrently, the Penguins have a great portion of their core all locked up and they will be looking to compliment this core group with some more grinding talent in the bottom six, while possibly still trying to find an excellent scoring winger for their top two centres.  The core group above, 17 players, come in at a projected annual total of $55.5 million, which leaves them about $7 million for three to five players.  They may just have to stick with the scoring wingers they already have.

The restricted free agents will likely get first crack at the remaining cap space on the team budget and only two RFAs had played a game for the Penguins in 2011, Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey, so there should be plenty of space left over after these two sign, in theory.  Kennedy should get a good raise after a good year, but it won't be too significant, while Jeffrey will likely just be happy to be back with the club.

Pascal Dupuis, Alex Kovalev, Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Chris Conner, Arron Asham and Mike Comrie headline the unrestricted free agents and if some of these depth players are going to return to the Penguins, they will likely be looking at some minimum monies to do so.  Comrie will definitely not be returning and I can't see Kovalev making a return, being just a rental player, so there isn't a lot of consideration going into this Summer.

The Penguins debuted a good number of young players in the 2011 season, so it will be interesting to see who will make the cut for a full-time gig, especially when the superstars are healthy again.  Out of the group in 2011 that should make an impact on the line-up would include Dustin Jeffrey, who played fairly well in his up and down trips to the big club.  Eric Tangradi is far from being rushed onto the big club's roster, but he has to be getting close, finally.  Finally, after winning the Memorial Cup this Spring with St. John, I could see Simon Despres getting a long look in camp, much like Letang and Goligoski in years previous.

The Penguins have some reasonable depth in their system, but it's arguably not quite as deep as some other clubs in the league.  I'm expecting the Penguins to go after the best available players with every pick, possibly rounding out depth on a position near the end of the draft.  The Penguins will be selecting 23rd in the opening round of the draft this year and my guess would be that they will try and go after a scoring winger, one that is as close to being NHL-ready as possible.

What I said last year at this time... "For 2011, I don't think there is any real need to go wild again. Crosby should be pretty good again, especially if he continues to shoot the amount he did in 2010. Malkin will bounce back in 2010, but I wouldn't bet on him beating Crosby in the scoring race. Some new youth needs to be fused into the line-up, especially since there are a number of spots open, so I would be looking for a new dark horse to turn some heads. Veteran presence will be a key issue that needs to be addressed in the Summer and if they cannot fill some of those gaps, I suspect that the team might suffer a tad in the win column, hurting Fleury's overall numbers. There's no question that the Penguins will be in the mix all season, but their Summer will definitely dictate how strong of a force they will be a year from now."

In review, Crosby was absolutely lights out... for half the season, Malkin only somewhat bounced back and didn't beat Sid in scoring... for half the season, youth was infused out of necessity, while the veteran presence had to lead the way through 2011, meaning they filled the gaps quite well.  The team suffered a little bit, as did Fleury, but not for the reasons of lack of depth, especially since the depth is what got them to the playoffs and it was what happened during the season, not the Summer that dictated the overall results of the team.  I thought I did pretty well there.

Looking at 2012, Crosby should be healthy, Malkin will be healthy, Staal will be healthy... these three will carry the team for another couple seasons at least and if they can do just that, they should be in really good shape.  If all three are on the opening night roster to start the year, I think we will get a great year out of the Penguins, both on the scoresheet and in the standings, which means good things for Fleury.  The addition of James Neal to the line-up last season will likely pay bigger dividends with Crosby healthy, making him into a great pick and I have a feeling that the Penguins will challenge for the Eastern Conference regular season title again.

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