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.
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!
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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