Oct 12, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) waits for a faceoff against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 NHL season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

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This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Pittsburgh Penguins.

What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?

It’s hard to understand where things went wrong for the Penguins last season. They finished 5th in the NHL in goals scored (2.95 per game) and penalty killing (85.0%), had the best powerplay in the league (23.4%), and even were a top 10 team in goals against (2.49) and shots allowed per game (28.8).

As has been the case since he joined the NHL in 2005, Sidney Crosby was the single biggest reason for the Penguins’ success. He scored 104 points, th 5th time in his career he broke the 100-point barrier. The 17-point gap between Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf was the largest since Jaromir Jagr won the scoring title by 20 points in 1998-99. He also took home the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

While he only played 60 games, Evgeni Malkin put up the best point-per-game average of anyone not named Crosby in the NHL with 72 points. He also led the Penguins with 14 points in 13 playoff games. He’s scored a point-per-game or better in the post-season in 5 of his 7 playoffs.

After scoring 52 points in 48 games with a ridiculous 19.5% shooting percentage in 2012-13, many thought Chris Kunitz’s incredible season was a product of playing with Crosby and a shortened season. Last season, he proved the doubters wrong with 35 goals and 68 points, earning a spot on Team Canada’s Olympic roster in the process.

Jussi Jokinen was another forward who enjoyed his best season in years playing in Pittsburgh. He scored 21 goals and 57 points in the regular season. Perhaps more impressive however were his team-leading 7 goals, including 3 game-winners, in 13 playoff games.

With Kris Letang once again injured, defenseman Matt Niskanen stepped up with a career-best 10 goals and 46 points, as well as a +33. It’s hard to believe Pittsburgh managed to acquire both him and James Neal for Alex Goligoski in what is sure to go down as one of the worst trades in Dallas Stars’ history.

Also on defense, rookie Olli Maatta had an excellent first season in the NHL. His 29 points, +8 and over 18 minutes per game of ice-time in 78 games were good enough to earn him 5th place in the Calder Trophy voting.

What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?

For a team that scored so many goals, it’s a little disappointing to see them finish 16th in the league with 29.9 shots per game. With each of their top 5 scorers finishing with 11.3% or better shooting percentage, it’s incredible to think where they’d be had they made opposing goaltenders work a little harder.

Injuries were probably the Penguins’ biggest enemy this past season. Only Craig Adams played in all 82 games, while Malkin, Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Letang and Paul Martin all missed at least 22 games each.

Of all the injuries, Malkin and Letang are the most concerning given their history and how much of the salary cap is committed to both players. After missing just 4 games in his first 3 seasons, it was the 5th year in a row Malkin missed 7 or more games. Letang meanwhile has missed 89 games over his past 3 seasons.

Since being acquired from the Hurricanes in the Jordan Staal trade, Brandon Sutter has been a bit of a disappointment as a 3rd line centre. In his two seasons in Pittsburgh so far, he’s managed just 45 points in 129 games and is a -6.

So what did they do to get better?

The Penguins were one of several teams to make sweeping changes to their management structure this off-season, starting with new General Manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Johnston, who compiled a record of 231-114-10-10 in the last 6 seasons coaching the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

Another big move was trading Evgeni Malkin’s right-hand man James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. The former will bring a bit of nasty to the Penguins’ top 6 as well as good goal-scoring ability, while the latter will help give the bottom 6 some more quality minutes, taking some pressure off the Pens’ star forwards.

Speaking of nasty, Steve Downie should provide plenty of that and then some. Downie brings tons of grit to the Penguins’ lineup, but he’s also shown the ability to play with good players. He’s scored 112 points in 214 career games with a 14.6% shooting percentage.

On defense, while losing Matt Niskanen certainly will hurt, Christian Ehrhoff is more than capable of filling the hole. He’s played 22 minutes per game or more in 5 consecutive seasons and is a +32 with 181 points in 351 games during that span.

Player to watch

Kris Letang is a key player for the Penguins. He’s their best puck-moving defenseman and plays a pivotal role on the team’s powerplay.

When he’s not in the lineup, it means the puck doesn’t get to the forwards as quickly or as efficiently, causing them to come back further in the defensive zone and spend less time on the attack.

For a team that relies so much on the top half of its roster, it’s absolutely essential that Letang find a way to stay healthier, especially given the fact that he’s signed until 2022 and has a no-move clause.

Few teams can lose a James Neal, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Niskanen and actually come out looking better.

They will make the playoffs if…

At least one of Crosby, Malkin or Letang is in the lineup every night. While they’ve all had their injury issues, they’ve managed to avoid going down all at the same time for extended periods.

They will miss the playoffs if…

The multitude of new faces don’t fit well together. The Penguins’ strength the last few seasons has been chemistry. It’s helped them deal with any injuries or slumps that they’ve faced.

What should we expect this season?

The Pittsburgh Penguins did a very nice job retooling this summer. Few teams can lose a James Neal, Jussi Jokinen, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen and actually come out looking better.

Pittsburgh will have a deeper, less top-heavy team which should help them take pressure off their stars and hopefully keep them healthier for longer.

Look for the Pens’ to rebound all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference and make a serious push for another Stanley Cup.

Prediction

51-24-7 109 points, 1st in the Metropolitan Division, 1st in the Eastern Conference

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