The All Inclusive Pittsburgh Penguins Preview; The Two Week Late Edition

It is rather rare to see a team that has made the playoffs eight season’s straight fire their head coach. It is even rarer to see a team fire their General Manager after such success.

A new coach, a new system, some fresh new faces, and a different approach to free agency are just some of the major changes that have Pittsburgh fans once again clamoring for hockey.

The coach, the system, and the plausible results

Keep the puck on your stick for the majority of the game and there is a good chance you will win. Tough concept to grasp is it not?

No. For some reason it was for the former regime. Their outdated dump and chase method, plus stretch passing, led to a poor possession team; hard to believe considering the talent that is currently on the roster, but such life.

Now, the Penguins fight to keep the puck on their sticks. So much so in fact that from day one of training camp coach Mike Johnston has opened and ended practice in possession drills.

The pens are keying in on making shorter passes through the neutral zone, likely to result in a cut back in turnovers. They carry the puck into the offensive zone and out of the defensive zone on a regular basis as well. This has resulted in fancy stat guru’s clamoring about the possible success of Pittsburgh in 5v5 situations.  Their Corsi% and Fenwick adjusted goals metrics are expected to be top five in the league.

*To put this in terms that the average fan can comprehend: Puck on Crosby and Malkin stick = good. Making them win footraces to the wall because of the stupid dump and chase = bad.*

Prediction – Pittsburgh becomes one of the better teams in the league while playing five on five. Generating possession and outshooting the opponent might be elementary, but for Pittsburgh it is also revolutionary. Pittsburgh finishes in the top five in five on five goals for/against, while outshooting the opposition five on five in the area of five shots for Pittsburgh to every four for the opposition.

New lines, Growing Stars, and forward predictions

Now fans should not expect the current lineup to remain the same for too much longer. Evgeni Malkin missed all of training camp and was placed at the right wing position to get back to speed, but is expected to take over his center position shortly.

 Beau Bennett, a virtual top six lock in camp, is out indefinitely with a lower body injury. Once he returns he is expected to play right wing with Evgeni Malkin and likely Pascal Dupuis.

Brandon Sutter, the current second line center, will move back to the third line with Malkin’s return to center. The rest of the lineup is rather unpredictable, with the exception of Marcel Goc centering the fourth line, and still not set as Pittsburgh is looking to deal for winger depth.

One line that looks set for the season is that of Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Patrick Hornqvist. This line currently paces the team with a total of 10 goals and 22 points in four games. While the majority of their point production is power play based, they are dominating the possession game.

Speaking of Hornqvist, his four goals and four assists in four games are quite incredible. His 7 shots per game average is also notable. To say he is the Penguins best net front man of the past decade is probably an understatement. Add in he is a right handed shot and Sidney Crosby is just having a field day with his new winger.

Predictions Surprise here, but it looks like Sidney Crosby is on his way to yet another Art Ross Trophy. His current pace is not sustainable, but 100 points is a guarantee. I expect him to finish with his best season to date in this new system, breaking the 120 point mark.

His line mates, Kunitz and Hornqvist, should both be in the area of 35 goals and 70 total points. It is not out of the realm of possibility to see Hornqvist net 40 goals this season.

Evgeni Malkin is once again in point per game form. If Bennett is able to return by December I would fully expect a 90 point season out of Geno. His power play production is now going to sky rocket with James Neal out of the picture as well.

Brandon Sutter is also looking to take the next step in his game. Depending on when he returns to the third line and who his wingers will be, I expect to see 20 goals out of Sutter this season with four coming shorthanded.

Toughness

Steve Downie and Blake Comeau were brought in to Pittsburgh for one reason, to play hard bottom six minutes. Both players bring the element of physicallity to the bottom six, but have good puck skills as well. 

Although not marquee names, these two players are a big upgrade over what Pittsburgh had last season. 

Defense is on the loose

One of the most intriguing facets of Mike Johnston’s system is the activation of the defense. They are counted on to start each rush and are now free to jump into the offensive zone when they see fit.

Players such as Olli Maatta, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Christian Ehrhoff should see plenty of production at even strength.

Maatta is the key to all of this. Already taking a huge step forward, Maatta’s game is now unleashed. Watching this young budding star control the puck is just flat out fun. A very instinctual and heady player, Maatta is going to have a very good sophomore season.

With Scott Harrington, Robert Bortuzzo, and Simon Despres pushing for time, the Penguins D is going to be

Predictions The defense has plenty of talent this season, but I do not expect as much goal scoring from them this season. With play focusing down low towards the net the defense should rack up the assists, but I don’t expect any Penguins defender to finish with more than 15 goals this season. The only exception would Kris Letang due to his power play minutes.

Goaltending…

Marc-Andre Fleury is in a contract year. If he performs well, he might be too pricy. If he stinks, he won’t be back. This might be his last season in Pittsburgh.

Thomas Griess is a very capable netminder who I expect to do well in Pittsburgh. He should win a majority of his starts and finish with a save % close to .920, likely better than what Fleury will finish with.

Prediction Fleury does his job well enough throughout the season to remain the starter where the playoffs will once again be his only true test.

Season Predictions for the Team and Division

Pittsburgh has won their division two seasons in a row and I fully expect a third winning season. This is not a knock on the Metro, as I believe they are greatly improved, but as it stands now Pittsburgh is still better than the rest.

My four teams in the playoffs for the division are the Penguins, Islanders, Rangers, and the Blue Jackets. The fifth team in, if an Atlantic team stumbles, is the New Jersey Devils.

Unfortunately this leaves rivals Washington and Philadelphia out of the picture. For Philly, I’m not sure they can withstand the loss of Timmonen. The rest of their defensive core is subpar, with the exception of Streit, and that does not bode well for them.

The Capitals are a team on the rise this season, however, without a true and proven number two center this team will be just on the outside looking in.