What looked like a promising Stanley Cup Finals run, came spiraling down as the Penguins watched their fellow Pennsylvania arch rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, eliminate them in the first round.
And even as the Penguins had inched closer in their series with Philly, the series really wasn’t close.
One could even say that the series was over after Game 1, in which the jumpstart Penguins blew a two-goal lead, at home, with roughly nine minutes left in the third. Almost every game following Game 1, with the only exception being the Game 4 blowout, Pittsburgh had to come from behind. And battling back proved to be difficult, as the Flyers averaged a whopping five goals per game throughout the series.
What the hell happened?
Heading into the series–Pittsburgh was primed for the next round (at least). Winning eight of their last ten contests of the season, the Penguins were one of the hottest teams slotted for the playoffs. Captain Sidney Crosby was back, the injury report was looking empty, and James Neal had blossomed spontaneously right before our eyes.
Why did one of the most offensively despotic teams lose its proficiency and their season? Defense.
The Pittsburgh Penguins allowed a total of 30 goals in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. When they won the cup in 2009, Pittsburgh allowed 60 goals in 24 games. At the rate they were crumbling, the Pens would’ve allowed the same amount of goals in half as many games. In 2009, through 24 games, Pittsburgh had surrendered two shorthanded goals. In this 2012 campaign, they allowed three shorthanded goals, just in that one series alone mind you.
Fans were quick to place the blame with netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, he did look bad. But if you look back at a lot of those goals, they emerged due to a lackluster defensive prowess and an abundance of costly neutral zone turnovers. One of the biggest reasons why the Pens were able to hoist the cup in 09′, was because they had a group of gritty shot blockers too. Where’d they go? In fact, six players from the 09′ team were listed under the top 100 shot blockers, and this past season the team only saw three.
This is about improving the position that needs it most, and lets face it, chances are Fleury isn’t going anywhere soon. So it makes sense that the Penguins have selected defensemen in recent drafts. Out of the past seven picks they’ve had in the first and second round’s, six of those players were d-men. But in order for the Pens to march further than the first round, they’ll most likely have to eventually rely on a couple of their young defenders. And getting acclimated to the pro’s should be easier too, considering the amount of experience and cognition the team already has.
This is part of the reason why Penguins GM Ray Shero has instilled the blueprint of fixing the defense through the young guns. Because it’s the best way, in the long run. But if a team was struggling mightily on defense, why wouldn’t they pursue a player like Ryan Suter through free agency? Because Shero recognizes the salary cap and the core star players he has to be able to re-sign (i.e. Hart Trophy recipient Evgeni Malkin, NHL poster child Sidney Crosby, etc). It isn’t as if he could’ve afforded to spend the amount Suter eventually inked. And Shero also grasps the concept that the team is built off of draft selections, not free agency. The overhaul of young talent is good; if anything, they can always package something for a proven talent elsewhere.
The team heads into the transparent season with likely having a starting defense that will include Deryk Engelland, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. In my opinion, you will probably see Letang, Orpik, Engelland and Niskanen penciled in the lineup for sure. Letang and Orpik for obvious reasons, Niskanen because of his ability to create as well as youth and Engelland for his toughness. So that would leave a question mark for the last two defensive slots. Paul Martin showed major inconsistency, and while Ben Lovejoy isn’t a bad option, a multitude of young talent casts a foggy future for him.
That leaves the team calling upon one of their prospects. First name that comes in mind–Derrick Pouliot of course. The eighth overall selection of the 2012 NHL Draft is currently playing in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks and has posted 24 points (5G, 19A) in 25 games with a 17+/-. Scouts are to have said Pouliot draws a lot of comparison to Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and he also was partially the reason why the Penguins were able to part ways with Jordan Staal so why not? Of all the teams, Pittsburgh has not been shy about slotting rookies in their lineup.
Pouliot isn’t the only first round defensemen they can choose between though. The other prized prospects that come to mind include: Olli Maata, Simon Despres and Joseph Morrow. Despres was the 2010 first round choice that was able to play with the Penguins for their first round knockout, so he now has a little experience under his belt and could see starting time. Despres is currently playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton and has gathered five points (2G, 3 A) through 16 games with a 2+/-. Morrow and Maata each were first round choices as well, and the chance to fill the spot could go potentially be given to one of them. Morrow is playing for the baby Pens posting three points (1G, 2A)in 14 games with a -5+/-. And Maata, whom in my opinion would fill in effortlessly, has posted 23 points (3G, 20A) in 26 games with a 5+/-.
Whoever it is, the Pens must ultimately win with defense.
They need a defense that is going to play consistently, from beginning to end, through each period. Penguins fans, and the rest of the NHL for that matter, know the team has a monstrous offense. The challenge is, and has always been about limiting the oppositions scoring opportunities. The end to the 2012 campaign for the Penguins, some could justifiably say, resulted in being probably the worst thing that could’ve happened.
But for now, the season is still locked down. Pen’s fans are probably more disturbed about no puck than anything.