Sizing Up the 2014-15 Eastern Conference’s Potential
The Pittsburgh Penguins came up short in their bid to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals again in 2014, losing in seven games to the New York Rangers in the second round of the NHL playoffs. The team left the ice facing many difficult off-season decisions. And to no one’s surprise, they made a number of significant changes.
Starting at the top, in the front office, General Manager Ray Shero was fired and replaced by former Carolina Hurricanes’ GM Jim Rutherford. Shortly afterwards, coach Dan Bylsma was fired and replaced with Mike Johnston, who has never been a head coach in the NHL. Rick Tocchet, the former Tampa Bay head coach (2008-2010) and former Penguins player (1992-1994), was also hired as an assistant coach. Clearly, ownership felt a change in philosophy was needed.
There were a number of significant changes on the ice, as well. Players leaving Pittsburgh include James Neal, Jussi Jokinen, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland. And the Penguins will welcome Christian Erhoff, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and Thomas Greiss to the team this fall.
Of course, the Penguins still boast two of the best players in the world, in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Chris Kunitz is back, likely still playing beside Crosby, as a key scorer, and Kris Letang hopes to be fully recovered from his healthy issues (stroke). Another key player returning to the team is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is entering the final year of his contract.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins still represent an elite opponent on the schedule. While fans love to come out to see Sidney Crosby play at the Air Canada Centre, it is always difficult to garner points against the Penguins. The Maple Leafs, though, haven’t faired all that badly against Pittsburgh the past few years.
Saturday, October 11 @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 p.m., TV-CBC
Friday, November 14 @ Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. TV-TVA Sports
Wednesday, November 26 @ Penguins, 7:30 p.m., TV-Sportsnet
The Potential Good: The Penguins enter the season with healthy superstars. Crosby and Malkin can carry the offensive load, and if support players like Kunitz and Hornqvist can finish around the net, the offence should be fine. Letang and Erhoff can both put up points from the blueline, and help the league’s best power play (23.38%, 65 goals) continue to be very dangerous. If the offence performs consistently, and as expected, the Penguins should be able to capture the Metropolitan Division title again this year, and finish near the top of the conference standings.
Another positive might be a new coaching staff. A new approach and some new systems might serve the Penguins very well, especially in the playoffs, which have not been kind to Pittsburgh in recent. While some are concerned about Johnston’s inexperience as a head coach at the NHL level, it should be pointed out that he vast experience in hockey. Johnston was an assistant/associate coach for eight seasons (1999-2006 in Los Angeles, 2006-2008 in Vancouver) and has been the head coach, and general manager, of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks for the past six seasons.
The Potential Bad: Injuries could decimate the Penguins this year. As always, Crosby is the key and if he goes down for an extended period of time, Pittsburgh could be in some trouble. Special teams were a big strength for the Penguins last season. If the power play, or the penalty kill, struggle this season, Pittsburgh may find itself sinking a little lower in the standings.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Pittsburgh is goaltending. It was a bit of a surprise that the Penguins did not move, or buy out, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the off-season. He is entering the final year of his contract. Former Phoenix Coyote Thomas Greiss was signed as insurance, but Fleury is still the clear number one option. While he is usually solid through the regular season, Fleury has been shaky in the playoffs the past couple of seasons. If he stumbles early, Fleury may find himself on the bench, or on the move, this season.
Writer’s Prediction: It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t win the Metropolitan Division, and make a run a the Eastern Conference title. If the Penguins can stay healthy, and Fleury performs well, it is highly probable that they will find their way deep into the playoffs next spring.
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