April 20, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) defend the goal against Philadelphia Flyers center Danny Briere (48) and left wing Scott Hartnell (19) during the first period in game five of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Penguins Have Roster Flaws?


Since the Penguins were unable to acquire a high-impact free agent over the summer, the current roster has me questioning the team’s ability to overcome obvious weaknesses that appeared last season.  Actually, take a look back at the past few years and you’ll notice a number of deficiencies which have come to light in the playoffs, consequentially leading to the team’s downfall.  Lucky for the Pens, their speed, skill, and superstars can carry them through a regular season with ease, but that is not what management or fans play for in this town.  Postseason hockey is a different animal with unique characteristics, such as the physical intensity, overall congestion on the ice, and necessity of a simplified offensive approach; it is these attributes which have exposed Pittsburgh’s flaws.  I have identified four areas of concern.

Power-Winger:

Playoff games are always played much tighter which causes congestion all over the ice.  When a team is in the offensive zone, defenses crowd lanes in front of the net to block shots and create difficult shooting angles.  Even with Pittsburgh’s dynamic talent, sometimes it is best to have some scrappy big-men to plant in front of the net.  Having Sidney Crosby back on the ice will help to an extent, as we’ve all seen how dangerous he can be around the crease, but his medical history does not lend itself to the punishment taken earlier in his career.  I also imagine he will be more cautious since signing his mega-deal.

So who could fill this role? That is to be determined.  The bigger guys on our roster are more skilled, perimeter scorers.  James Neal has too good a shot to stick in there, and it doesn’t suit the rest of his game.  If no moves are made, Eric Tangradi seems to be a lock to begin the season on the roster, although this will certainly be his final chance to impress.  He might actually have the hands to make an impact there and his skating ability is hardly a strong suit.

Could he be a new Ryan Malone or Gary Roberts?  I’d have to see a lot more.  Those guys were both hard-nosed bad asses, and it takes one to man the front of the net.

You can look at Kunitz, Cooke, and Vitale who all very tough dudes-Kunitz being the most skilled of the group-but they aren’t big enough to anchor themselves in spots where a defense doesn’t want them.  I’m interested to see Tanner Glass, as his numbers are bound to go up with more skill around him, but he and Tangradi will need to prove themselves or Ray Shero should think about looking elsewhere at the trade deadline.

If you look at both trips to the Stanley Cup finals, Malone and Roberts were able to jam pucks passed the goalie when a wall of traffic surrounded the net.  That comes in handy when you aren’t playing the Philadelphia Flyers in some bizarre ‘every man for themselves’ series where goalies go to die and defensemen are left-out to dry.

Shutdown, Net-Clearing Defenseman:

As much as I’d like to reincarnate Gary Roberts, there is a tremendous need for a big-ogre to clear bodies away from Fleury.  Hal Gill was as good as anybody, despite skating in slow motion.  Deryk Engelland and Brooks Orpik do a decent job, but they often have trouble with big forwards.  Seeing the opposition’s forwards completely screen our goalies and run into very little resistance on loose pucks around the net has been a reoccurring them.  It is an absolute dagger when a fantastic save by Marc-Andre goes by the way-side after rebounds get flicked in behind him.  Most of the time, at least one defenseman was pushed out of position or missed their assignment, something a true stay-at-home beast could prevent.  Unless some of our highly touted prospects are NHL ready by lockout’s end, this is a problem that can only be solved with an external acquisition.

Winger for Crosby, Defensive Upgrade:

I lumped both of these categories together because they could be solved by satisfying the previously mentioned needs.  Strengthening Crosby’s line is far from, however I am not a fan of Tyler Kennedy filling it out.  The last thing Coach Bylsma should do is break apart the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line; it’s a sure-fire, top-scoring unit for years to come.  Sadly, the leftovers are not intriguing especially after they let Steve Sullivan go.

Pascal Dupuis and Sid are great together, and the speed is deadly, but adding Kennedy will expose their weaknesses.  They would be physically overmatched on practically every shift, and have almost identical games that only vary in skill.  You may not think it is a big deal on offense-a discussion for another day- but they will be a defensive liability every time they are on the ice.  I have liked Joe Vitale for a while and he brings a physicality similar to Kunitz(again, less skill), yet he is far from a fix.  I’d use him over Cooke but that’s only because I know Matty’s ceiling, and you never know what would happen with a guy like Vitale or Tanner Glass getting fed pucks from “The KiD”.  The options above are truly a sorry excuse when filling the vacant wingman position at Crosby’s side, but those are the immediate internal options.

Realistically, they will need to acquire the next James Neal or a different dynamic stud(preferably Bobby Ryan!) to achieve true superiority on the Captain’s line.  I’d like to see a talented power-forward with average/above average speed brought in for the spot.  A guy similar to Boston’s Milan Lucic, and they would solve two of their biggest problems.  Winger Beau Bennett is an impact talent who has impressed management with his vision and play-making ability, and is a very exciting internal option in the near future.  Many believe he will be a perfect complement to Crosby, and processes the game as quickly as the prolific center. [check out link for more]

To upgrade the defense, Penguins’ management is going to have to work some magic.  Paul Martin is underwhelming in Bylsma’s speed-based puck retrieval system.  The rest of his situational abilities are nothing to brag about, and he’s cashing a bangin’ check with the $5M/yr deal he signed.  They’ve been trying to rid the books of his contract since the season ended, and based on the interest generated, I don’t see it happening any time soon.  Simon Despres should be an upgrade over Martin if not a few other blue liners, but his game is still a work in progress along with his decision making.  His play resembles that of Kris Letang and bodes well for the system.  The dilemma will be maneuvering Martin’s contract and which player is decidedly replaced.

I’m finishing up a piece on the supremely talented defensive prospects currently moving through the organizational ranks, and will more closely examine the internal fixes then.  I’ll leave you with the fact that most of them will not be NHL ready this year, if any, but the future is overwhelmingly bright.  Joe Morrow, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Derrick Pouliot are enormous talents, and oh yes, Dumoulin is that net-front monster we’ve all been waiting for.  Check this detailed list of Prospects out!

Disagree with me? Leave me a piece of your mind below…

Tags: Brooks Orpik CBA Chris Kunitz Crosby Dan Bylsma Draft Evgeni Malkin Fleury Hockey James Neal Kris Letang Kunitz Malkin Marc-Andre Fleury Matt Cooke Matt Niskanen Nhl Pascal Dupuis Paul Martin Penguins Pens Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Penguins Sid Crosby Sidney Crosby Steve Sullivan

  • Steve

    Great article. I’m very glad you left Fleury out because it is completely unfair to judge him based on the way the Pens played defensively in the playoffs. Actually, after the Pens took the 3-0 lead in game 1, Fleury made a number of great saves until Briere finally got one past him on the breakaway, but it was probably the fourth great chance the Flyers had in a short span in that period after they fell behind. I”m just not sure about Paul Martin though. It seems very average defensemen are getting $5 million a year or more nowadays, I also love Blysma but if they don’t get a shutdown defensemen they just won’t win anything. That seems incredibly clear to everyone except the Pens management.

    • Josh Andrews

      Thanks for the input. I hear ya.
      Steve- Thanks man
      appreciate it. Agree with ya. And yes, often times average defenseman
      are making approx. $5Mil, the problem is the fact that Martin’s in the
      wrong system. I think he would play up to his worth in other systems,
      like NJ’s as mentioned by Joe, but he simply does not fit the bill in
      ours. If you aren’t quick, or Big like Engelland, I don’t feel like you
      can truly excel in the defense. I do believe he had somewhat of a down
      year, but even at his best he still isn’t efficient enough. Joe’s idea
      on reinventing the system to an extent would be one of my first
      priorities for the year, and a collapse-oriented zone would be a step in
      the right direction. Still, I fear the problems that show up will come
      back to the body-types/skill-sets employed. Let’s hope Joe Morrow is
      used soon, and possibly Dumoulin, as I can assure he would do wonders on
      the penalty kill at the very least. Thanks

  • Jenna

    I definitely agree with this article. We need a few rough and tumble D-men, a lot of our most “defensive” defensemen secretly want to be forwards and aren’t gritty in the crease and seemingly forget their roles. I really can’t stand Paul Martin’s laziness and lack of drive, especially since he signed that contract. I also think that Matt Cooke would make a good internal winger for Sid, they really clicked in the Flyers playoff series this year and I feel like he should get another chance at the spot. I also am glad that we have Voukoun now to give Fleury a little bit of relief…that can actually stop pucks. Whenever Johnny was in net, you knew that it was an L. But in terms of defense in particular, I think that Shero has a lot on his plate in terms of team management for this season. That is, if we have a season at all…

    • Josh Andrews

      Thanks for the input. I hear ya.
      Jenna-I agree for the most part.
      My only comment on using Matt Cooke is that he just isn’t a top 6
      forward. Now internally, I understand completely, and yes they did seem
      to click together in the playoffs. However I would claim that
      “clicking” is subject to the fact that Crosby is an all-world talent,
      and a monkey in pads could probably contribute. That is no disrespect
      to him, but that is why I make the point that the use of Vitale, Glass,
      etc. could quite possibly produce the same offensive numbers, with an
      added fore-checking and defensive presence. Cooke’s physicality is not
      what it used to be, and understandably, he’s changed his game, but he
      also is not relatively quick nor skilled. With that, the added
      advantage would be Vitale’s speed which is closer to that of Crosby and
      Dupuis, and a better defender and fore-checker. Could lead to more
      pucks being turned over and a chaotic net-front presence. If it were to
      fail, I agree, Matt Cooke is the best option for now. Thanks!

  • Joseph Crowley

    The penguins offenses is far from the problem, and i understand your point though i disagree that you can’t break up the Neal Kuntiz Malkin line. Neal and Malkin I agree can’t break them up but i think it’s in the penguins best interest to give Crosby Kunitz only because they were unable to acquire the winger they wanted. Realistically we don’t need to add offense and it’s impossible to bring in another James Neal its impossible to find someone like that for the value we can give in return, Shero pulled off a miracle to get Neal by taking advantage of an absent owner situation. I believe you are over stating the flaws a bit only because the offense isn’t the problem.

    Defense is question mark in my book and i agree with your opinion. I think Martin played god awful last year but his talent has to still be there, he earned that salary but it does show how much the new jersey system covered some of his flaws. Would it be terrible to collapse to the net in our zone only if we can’t get the puck moving vertically quicker? They need someone to reinvent the defensive system to make it mesh with Bylsmas offensive system but also stablize the back end. I think Depres is far from the answer but i really believe Joe Morrow will be a great two way defenseman and he almost made the team last year at 18, which isn’t unheard of, i wouldn’t be surprised to see him very soon. Its obvious the way Shero believes the league is going and he is preparing for that with the type of defensemen he has acquired. lets just hope hes not wrong. The defense needs to be built better for playoff hockey.

    Good article, I like the negative view point, gives some perspective and probably incites reactions more than praise. Good stuff.

  • Josh Andrews

    Thanks for the input. I hear ya.
    Jenna-I agree for the most part. My only comment on using Matt Cooke is that he just isn’t a top 6 forward. Now internally, I understand completely, and yes they did seem to click together in the playoffs. However I would claim that “clicking” is subject to the fact that Crosby is an all-world talent, and a monkey in pads could probably contribute. That is no disrespect to him, but that is why I make the point that the use of Vitale, Glass, etc. could quite possibly produce the same offensive numbers, with an added fore-checking and defensive presence. Cooke’s physicality is not what it used to be, and understandably, he’s changed his game, but he also is not relatively quick nor skilled. With that, the added advantage would be Vitale’s speed which is closer to that of Crosby and Dupuis, and a better defender and fore-checker. Could lead to more pucks being turned over and a chaotic net-front presence. If it were to fail, I agree, Matt Cooke is the best option for now. Thanks!
    Joe-Hey bro, hear ya loud and clear… And somehow two sentences are missing from the publish that show up on my edit, but the least of needs is offense. What I will say is that we haven’t won a cup, nor arrived at one since having an adept power-forward/netfront presence on offense. Now yes, we all can surmise that we are possibly the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL, and we haven’t had our two superstars both healthy in a defensive series for a while. But I go back to the Montreal series, where they shut us down at times. There is a correlation to some extent, but can we survive? Yes, I would think in most cases we would. I’d still look out for that day when the offensive seems useless. In terms of Kunitz moving back with Crosby, I love the line and the idea of it, but I still don’t want to do it. What Kunitz means to the Neal and Malkin line gets understated rather often. He is their primary fore-checker, works the boards way better than both of them, and his skill-set complements Malkin(just like it does Crosby) in moving the puck; he’s basically the glue that holds the line together. Yes they could survive, but I think it’s important to have one truly dominant line, in regards to how the roster currently sets up, than split them apart and minimize both effectiveness. Either way I can live with it, but I believe they should bring Beau Bennett up relatively early to pair with Sid, and go from there. Once Martin’s contract is gone, b/c they will dump him after this year if a trade doesn’t work out, they will have the money to get a legit 65-75 point winger. And finally the D. I completely agree with your points. They really like Despres, and he fits the Byslma system very well. He is a lock over Joe Morrow, in terms of beginning the season in the NHL from what I’ve heard. Now, Morrow could most likely make a move up midway through the season, or slightly before, and he would be my first choice if they take the chance on him sooner. I like Morrow over a number of guys, and I also think Dumoulin is the kind of guy our team has been missing, who would’ve possibly started in the NHL if he stayed with Carolina. He is not too far off either, but they have Strait and Bortullo who they apparently have butt-tons of confidence in as well over the higher pedigree guys we’d all like to see instead. It’s all gonna depend on them coming to the realization they should test some out. Morrow would make a gigantic impact on the team. I would disagree on not being able to find another “Neal”, although it wont be for as great a deal obviously. But the prospects we have piled up in a heap are like lost gold. No matter what we do, in the next three years we will have 12 legitimate NHL defenseman, including Orpik, Letang, etc. So, at some point an opportunity will prevent itself, as no other team compares to the Penguins in terms of pure prospects. Thanks for the input homey! (It was intended to be controversial! ha good call)
    Steve- Thanks man appreciate it. Agree with ya. And yes, often times average defenseman are making approx. $5Mil, the problem is the fact that Martin’s in the wrong system. I think he would play up to his worth in other systems, like NJ’s as mentioned by Joe, but he simply does not fit the bill in ours. If you aren’t quick, or Big like Engelland, I don’t feel like you can truly excel in the defense. I do believe he had somewhat of a down year, but even at his best he still isn’t efficient enough. Joe’s idea on reinventing the system to an extent would be one of my first priorities for the year, and a collapse-oriented zone would be a step in the right direction. Still, I fear the problems that show up will come back to the body-types/skill-sets employed. Let’s hope Joe Morrow is used soon, and possibly Dumoulin, as I can assure he would do wonders on the penalty kill at the very least. Thanks