By John Toperzer
What if …
… Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby don’t live up to expectations?
Let’s get the big question out of the way.
Given that the Penguins’ philosophy is now designed around puck possession, losing 87 and 71 would likely crush any chance of the Penguins hosting Stanley Cup IV. For a period of time, the team might be able to rally around its grinders, play a tight game, protect Marc-Andre Fleury and float around the .500 mark (only five NHL teams finished 2013-14 with losing records), but let’s be serious. The Pens need a healthy Geno and Sid to do real damage. We all know that.
Crosby appears to be relatively healthy, but a wonky wrist and an undisclosed injury rumored to be his shoulder could sideline the star at any moment.
Malkin has yet to practice. Even if he returns, who’s to say that he doesn’t suffer a setback? The team would be wise to take its time with the Russian star as he returns from a foot injury or whatever the undisclosed injury actually is.
… Opponents find it easier than ever to camp out in front of Pittsburgh’s net?
The Penguins have done alright without a Dion Phaneuf to keep forwards honest, but with Brooks Orpik signing for big bucks in Washington, only Roberto Bortuzzo profiles as a blueliner with the ability to clear traffic in front of Fleury. Now, Bortuzzo is out for another few weeks, leaving behind a defensive unit that wouldn’t even strike fear in Nathan Gerbe. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound Brian Dumoulin will start the season in Wilkes-Barre but better leave his cell phone on & charged. Simon Despres has shown more feistiness in camp than ever before, but NHL refs have already seemed to have red-flagged Despres as a Penguin to call a penalty on whenever they want to make an “even-up” call.
… Team management has too many Indian Chiefs?
We’re not talking about the old Johnstown Chiefs here. New GM Jim Rutherford has decided to keep a staff which is big. You’ve got associate GM Jason Botterill, assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, and assistant GM Bill Guerin all pressing Rutherford’s ear. That’s fine for the 63-year-old, but first-year coach Mike Johnston might find himself looking over his back wondering if he’s making the right decision. Johnston was the organization’s eighth head-coaching pick, or something like that. Let’s just hope he’s not the insecure type when the team hits a bump in the road, as all franchises do at one time or another.
There’s also the long-term management question as to which Indian Chief takes over in the next couple years when Rutherford retires, but we’ll stick to 2014-15.
… Age catches up to Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis?
The NHL is a young man’s game, with Jaromir Jagr and a few others serving as exceptions. Kunitz and Duper are both 35 years of age. While that’s still a good age for those in secondary support roles, both players will be counted upon for top-six minutes. Kunitz’s physical “badger” style lends itself to injury at 25, let alone 35. Dupuis relies upon elite speed and skating ability. Once his legs go, his game will surely follow. Throw in spring knee surgery and Sid’s linemates are not a sure thing. As we’ve seen, not everyone finds it easy to play wing for Crosby. Beau Bennett has looked good on occasion, but he’s out for the next month with a knee injury.
… The team underestimated the impact of its departing players?
As earlier mentioned, Brooks Orpik is gone. Clearly he had lost a step, but he was voted to player’s player on numerous occasions and had the respect of the room. James Neal, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Niskanen finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in scoring. That’s a total of 164 points gone.
Brian Gibbons was discarded. He played some of the team’s best hockey in the playoffs. Joe Vitale might not be a big loss but he was one of the few decent faceoff men on the squad. Tanner Glass was a hitting machine in his second year, even though his advanced metrics were bad. Deryk Engelland, he’s gone. He set a career high in goals (6) and was coach Bylsma’s favorite (I’m only half joking here).
There are other names, too, but their absences will unequivocally help. Taylor Pyatt and Matt D’Agostini spring to mind.
… Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero really weren’t that bad of a combination?
Changes had to be made, don’t get me wrong. Change was long overdue and a legitimate argument could be made that Bylsma, at the least, should’ve been fired after losing in the postseason to Boston two seasons ago. But there’s something to be said about consistency. Pittsburgh finished no lower than second in its division the last five years. Of course, the ring will always be what it’s about so long as Sid and Geno are on the team, as it should be – but who’s to say that a 57-year-old, first-year NHL coach is the way to go?
Plenty of legitimate questions surround the Pittsburgh Penguins and the only real way to find answers is to play the game.
Puck drops Thursday night.