The perpetually disappointing Penguins are counting on Phil Kessel's firepower to restore their Stanley Cup contender status.
COACH: Mike Johnston
2014-15 RECORD: 43-27-12, 98 points (fourth in Metro, lost to Rangers, 4-1, in first round)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.6 goals per game (19th); 2.5 goals-against (10th); 19.3 power play pct (10th); 84.8 penalty kill pct (3rd); PDO: 99.9 (19th); Corsi For pct.: 51.9 (10th); Fenwick For pct.: 52.0 (8th); face-off pct.: 49.1 (19th)
NOTABLE ARRIVALS: F Phil Kessel, C Nick Bonino, C Matt Cullen, F Eric Fehr, D Adam Clendening, D Tim Erixon, F Sergei Plotnikov
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: C Brandon Sutter, D Christian Ehrhoff, F Steve Downie, F Daniel Winnik, F Blake Comeau, G Thomas Greiss, C Nick Spaling
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Phil Kessel
Sergei Plotnikov– Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
David Perron – Nick Bonino – Pascal Dupuis
Beau Bennett – Eric Fehr – Daniel Sprong
Kris Letang – Olli Maatta
Ian Cole — Ben Lovejoy
Rob Scuderi – Brian Dumoulin
OUTLOOK: Having advanced past the second round of the playoffs only once in the last six years, the perpetually disappointing Penguins made the splashiest move of the off-season by trading Nick Spaling and prospects to the Maple Leafs for Phil Kessel, one the league’s elite scorers. Only four other players have lit the lamp more often since 2009. The hope now is that Pittsburgh finally has an elite winger to play with Sidney Crosby. The fail safe option is to pair him up with Evgeni Malkin. And there is little concern about Kessel’s ability to fit in after his troubled tenure in Toronto during which he was frequently accused of being indifferent and aloof.
“He's not a bad guy at all,” Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly told SI. “[The media] tried to paint him that way a little bit. But that never bothered him, ad I think the fact that he wasn’t bothered by it really bothered the media.’
The speedy Kessel’s shoot-first mentality should add considerable punch to an offense that struggled at times last year, particularly on the power play. While he could end up scoring 50 goals, his arrival does not solve Pittsburgh’s problem down the middle. When the Pens last won the Stanley Cup (2009), they had three elite centers—Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Now, it’s up to Nick Bonino—acquired from Vancouver in the Brandon Sutter trade—to get back to the nearly 50-point plateau he reached two seasons ago with Anaheim. And a lot more will be asked from Chris Kunitz, who struggled to score at even strength last season, and the disappointing David Perron.
On defense, the Pens will benefit from the presence of a healthy Olli Maatta (shoulder, cancer) and Kris Letang (concussion) while they expect youngsters such as Brian Dumoulin to mature in a hurry and make up for the loss of veteran Paul Martin to San Jose. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off an excellent season—career-highs in save pct. (.920) and GAA (2.32)—but there is concern about how reliable backup Jeff Zatkoff will be if he’s needed for an extended stretch. Assuming their key players remain intact, the Penguins will surely reach the playoffs, but their new acquisitions still might not be enough to unseat the top guns in the East and punch their ticket to the Cup Final.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Nick Bonino
We know that Kessel will put up points, but the Pens took a risk when they traded Brandon Sutter to Vancouver for Bonino. Sutter is a do-it-all type player, who never quite filled Jordan Staal’s shoes, but he still performed well in all areas of the ice. Bonino is certainly more offensively skilled—in his last two seasons, he’s scored 29 more points than Sutter—but hasn’t yet had the long-term success than Sutter has enjoyed. If Bonino can score 50-60 points, it would go a long way towards a deep playoff run for Pittsburgh.
PREDICTION: 108 points, first in Metro