Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason: Pens Need to Seek Gritty, Skilled Wingers


Remember when one of the biggest criticisms of the Pittsburgh Penguins was that they were too soft and didn’t have enough gritty, energetic and passionate players? That they didn’t translate well to playoff style hockey because they didn’t have anyone willing to go to the front of the net? Here’s hoping that Jim Rutherford remembers.

He needs to remember why he traded James Neal – a guy with a wicked shot and great chemistry with Evgeni Malkin – to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. No one, not even Rutherford, realized at the time the profound impact that Hornqvist would have on this roster. The Pittsburgh Penguins finally had someone that would be willing to agitate goaltenders right in the blue paint and be the net-front presence this team sorely lacked.

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Seriously, watching Hornqvist play, I can’t count the number of times this guy got beat up and knocked down in front of the net, yet he comes back for more every single shift. Isn’t it amazing what someone gritty, willing to go to the front of the net and playing with passion can do for a team?

Actually, it’s more than just being gritty and passionate. What the Pittsburgh Penguins needed was players that were gritty and passionate, but can also play the game with some skill.

That is the difference that Hornqvist has brought to the Penguins. And, don’t tell me that same recipe wasn’t what Rutherford was looking for when signed depth players like Blake Comeau and Steve Downie. Rutherford saw that Downie had 44 goals and 106 points in three seasons with the Lightning under Rick Tocchet. And Comeau had goal totals of 17 and 24 in two seasons on Long Island in which he played 60 or more games.

In addition to their reputation for being gritty, tough players they can also play with some skill. Also, if you don’t think that having Downie on the roster made Marc Staal think twice before trying his old antics of turning his stick into a guillotine against Sidney Crosby in the playoffs, think again. It’s no coincidence that we didn’t see much of this in 2015.

Just look at the difference in opening night rosters from the last year under Ray Shero. In 2013-2014 the Penguins had guys like Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale skating as depth forwards to start the season. Not exactly the type of guys that instill fear in your opponent with their potential ability to score. Nick Spaling, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau are absolutely upgrades over what Ray Shero started the season with in 2013-2014 no matter what you personally think of these players.

Going even further, Shero added Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc prior to last season’s trade deadline. With Rutherford at the helm, the Pittsburgh Penguins added Daniel Winnik at the trade deadline and Maxim Lapierre in January. Lapierre and Goc are similar in terms of numbers, but Lapierre has the better physical edge and playoff reputation. Winnik and Stempniak have comparable numbers, but Winnik is bigger and more physical.

Winnik and Lapierre were critical pieces on the PK for the Penguins during the playoffs which kept them in games. The most important take way from this comparison is that Winnik and Lapierre actually did something to help the Penguins this spring.

While Lapierre didn’t show up in the regular season, he was at times the best Penguin forward on the ice in the playoffs, especially in Game 1. What did Goc or Stempniak – who at times was playing with Crosby – do to make you even remember them being a Penguin at all?

I hope that management sees past the late season problems such as Malkin failing to score a goal in his last fifteen games and coming up empty in the playoffs, and the top power play unit being anything but powerful. Also, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and Christian Ehrhoff being out for extended stretches with injuries that greatly affected Johnson’s breakout system. These are all separate issues and shouldn’t take away how these players impacted the roster this past season.

Rutherford has to seek these gritty, character, skill type of players again this offseason. The Pittsburgh Penguins had problems this season, for sure.  But, it wasn’t with the way Rutherford constructed the team. Were you complaining in October and November before the injuries started piling up and this team was firing on all cylinders?

It has worked for the Penguins and showed that an undermanned team in the playoffs can compete with the Presidents Cup winning New York Rangers, with every game being decided by one goal. I can’t remember the last time a Pens team showed as much energy and urgency as they did during these playoffs since, man… 2009?

Rutherford has stated that he is seeking a top six winger, likely via a trade. He must not give into temptation to go after someone like Jiri Tlusty or Alexander Semin that played for him when he was in Carolina and might be a “sexy” acquisition that fans love. They may be talented and would fill a need, but both are soft. Isn’t that why the Penguins traded Neal in the first place?

When you analyze the current forwards and what a potential right fit is to make this team better, it’s easy to see that the Penguins have only one true top-six winger in Hornqvist. I’m willing to give David Perron another chance as well after his struggles, he simply has too much talent to not figure out how to play and produce with 87 or 71.

Rutherford has said that they will give every chance to Kasperi Kapanen to earn a spot on the NHL roster. If Kapanen can add an infusion of speed, skill, and youth that this group is sorely lacking, I cannot say enough about how that will help the Penguins.

That leaves an open wing spot. In my opinion, I would love to see the Penguins add a two-way/power forward here. The Penguins currently don’t have that big body skill guy, but you know who does? Every team that is currently remaining in the playoffs: Ondrej Palat from Tampa Bay, Chris Kreider from the Rangers, Corey Perry from the Ducks and Brandon Saad from the Blackhawks.

These are players with good size, good hands, and help their team in more than one way. Look at what the addition of Hornqvist did and think about how another skilled forward who can put the puck in the net and isn’t afraid to be physical can help them. One player that might fit that bill is Andrew Ladd.

There are a lot of question marks facing the Penguins for next season regarding their forwards. What will the fate of Chris Kunitz be? Will he be back or traded/bought out? If not, can he regain some of his scoring touch? Can Pascal Dupuis still be a competent NHL forward at his age? Will Oskar Sundqvist play in Pittsburgh and pan out? Will Brandon Sutter be back or will he be packaged in some sort of trade? Is Kapanen ready to make the jump to the NHL?

In an offseason of question marks, I know one thing. Rutherford must continue to build the team around the type of grit, skill, character type guys he sought when he first came to Pittsburgh. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to what type of players the Pittsburgh Penguins need to pursue and the pudding certainly isn’t soft.

Next: The Pens Missed Big-Time in Not Acquiring Ryan Kesler

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