When the Penguins and Blue Jackets last faced off in a meaningful game, it signaled the end of the road for the Columbus playoff run. Pittsburgh's post-season journey ended shortly thereafter, and much has transpired since then. We checked in with Jim Rixner aka Hooks Orpik, who spearheads the excellent Pensburgh blog for SB Nation, and he graciously agreed to answer our questions.
What did the Penguins take away form last season's playoff series vs. the Blue Jackets? It was obviously a crazy series, with big comebacks, strange goals and another first round series that posed more of a struggle than the Penguins counted on. What's the response from the club, on and off the ice?
Obviously the end result of the season was massive changes of GM, coaching staff and to the roster, and even though the Penguins lost to the Rangers a lot of their flaws were exposed in the Columbus series. It just so happened that they were able to escape the first round mostly due to Evgeni Malkin hulking up and carrying them through. Mainly what I'll remember and take from the Columbus series was the fire that we saw from the younger players- like Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson. We knew those guys were good, but they were relentless and definitely showed they deserved to be there.
Just personally, I wonder if Blake Comeau's performance got him a contract as well. Even though he didn't score any points in the series, he was an effective, physical, 4th line forward and the Penguins were quick to sign him early in free agency- probably a lot because of what remaining members of their front office saw from Comeau in April.
Mike Johnston has stated that he wants to see more offense generated from the blue liners this season. Is this a realistic goal, given the roster upheaval on defense? If so, how does it happen?
I think that is a realistic goal- Johnston wants to preach a system where the defense will activate and participate more in the rush. If you look at other coaches that come from lower divisions (namely Jon Cooper in Tampa and Patrick Roy in Colorado) there is some success to be had by these fresh ideas at the NHL level. I personally think it will be a monster year for Kris Letang if he stays healthy, Christian Ehrhoff was a Norris finalist in Vancouver and now that he's out of Buffalo he should be able to shine. The Pens also have Paul Martin and Olli Maatta too, both smart puck-moving defensemen. Hopefully the team can get a lot from all of those guys, who should be able to contribute offensively.
Sticking with the blue line, with Niskanen and Orpik gone, the pressure seems to ramp up on Kris Letang, who looked (understandably) tentative after he came back. Beyond Letang, the Pens are relying on three guys 32 years-old and over (Ehrhoff, Martin & Scuderi). From the outside looking in, that looks like a shaky proposition. What's the view there?
That's a reasonable view, the Pens defense either has a few guys with a ton of experience or a few younger guys with almost none. Simon Despres should be full-time in the NHL this season, and there are other top prospects like Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot that all could see time in the NHL too. With Martin and Ehrhoff scheduled to be UFA's next summer, the Pens will be getting younger on defense pretty soon anyways. Getting guys like Orpik and Niskanen out starts that process, and I would probably expect more roster cycling soon as well. Pittsburgh's top young organizational strength is their defensive pipeline, and we should see more of those younger guys (Despres, Dumoulin, Pouliot, Harrington) join a D-core around cornerstons of Letang and Maatta.
For this season, they're set up well- Letang, Ehrhoff, Martin and Maatta give them a really solid top 4 that they can lean on all situations and to handle the toughest assignments. Then Scuderi, Despres and Robert Bortuzzo can combine for the rest, with the other younger guys getting a chance to play whenever injuries strike.
Marc-Andre Fleury is 29 -- the average age for a #1 goal tender in the NHL. He continues to be the lightning rod for criticism, but a 2.37 GAA and .915 save percentage -- while not Vezina material -- are pretty solid. His numbers were virtually identical between the regular season and the playoffs, which may surprise some. Is he on a short leash, or does he have some breathing room? If he can't cut it, is Greiss the answer?
Fleury's also in a contract year and may not be back with the team next year. I don't really think he has a "short leash"- because like you mentioned he's been very, very solid in the regular season. His numbers don't jump off the charts, but he does enough to win a ton of games and normally is just fine in the regular season. I'm not sure Thomas Greiss is a huge challenge to take the job, but if he's a capable backup that would be a nice thing to have for the team, depth wise.
Still, the team will ultimately sink or float depending on what kind of job Fleury does. People either tend to blindly love him or bash him incessantly, reality puts him somewhere in the middle. He's about average stastically, but with a $5 million salary, that's a large percentage of the cap to devote to a player who hasn't been able to perform in the playoffs, which is why this could very well be the final year for MAF in Pittsburgh. The team doesn't have a long-term plan really.
Crosby and Malkin continue to rack up serial nagging injuries. As they head down the inexorably run to age 30, the injury prospects tend to get worse, not better. While these guys are better at 80% than most of the league at 100%, this has to be a growing concern, doesn't it? Does Rutherford have a Plan B?
Crosby and Malkin combine to make $18.2 million on the cap, there isn't room for a backup plan. Either they play and the team benefits, or the team has to hang in there until they can get back. Crosby played 80 games last year and far and away was the best player in the league, there aren't too many worries for him. Sure, he could get hurt, but any player in hockey could get hurt at any time really.
Malkin's nagging injuries have limited him, but last year he was #2 in the entire league in points per game (behind only Sid). So when he plays, he's producing. Crosby and Malkin eventually will leave their primes and no longer be so dominant, but for right now both are pretty clearly the top 2 best all-around offensive players in the game. The Penguins biggest problem continues to be finding a way to surround them with enough young (and cheap) talent to give the team a chance.
The Penguins have managed to overcome adversity through sheer talent. While their margin for error might be slimmer this year, it would be a fool's errand to believe that they won't do it again. One thing is certain: the contests between Columbus and Pittsburgh will be entertaining, chippy affairs.
Thanks to Jim for indulging us and providing some candid answers. For all things Penguins, be sure to check out Pensburgh.