The Pittsburgh Penguins have made it very clear that they are committed to dominating via an overpowering offence. They have a very deep core of forwards, many of which are able to play top six minutes. Unfortunately for some of these guys, this depth is going to drastically cut their ice time.
When we look at the top six for the Pens, we instantly notice the big two: Malkin and Crosby. These two positions are locked down for the foreseeable future. The wing positions however, are much more vulnerable to movement. Long- time partner of Crosby, Chris Kunitz, is projected to play third line minutes with Bonino and Pascal Dupuis. It was just a season or two ago, where Dupuis and Kunitz were playing huge minutes with the likes of Sidney Crosby. They were a huge part of the lineup, but have seemingly been pushed out by free agent pickups.
The likes of David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel and Sergei Plotnikov are poised to steal big chunks of minutes, both even strength and on the power play. These guys are going to contribute to one of the best offences in the league, but it leads one to wonder, how strong is the Penguins back end compared to the rest of the conference?
Sure, they can slug it out offensively, but can they take a run at the Stanley Cup with their current blue line? I have always been favorable to the Penguins blue line, but as the season approaches, I am noticing some major holes in their roster. Outside of Letang and Maata, there really isn't much depth. I was shocked to learn that Derek Pouliot was sent down to the AHL, as I am confident that he will one day become a top 4 blue liner for his team. Nonetheless, the Penguins felt differently, and are now entering the season with a questionable bottom 4. This is going to result in some serious ice time for the two top defenders. It is very likely that one, if not both of these players could succumb to injury Letang especially, has missed a large chunk of time over the past few years. Lack of preparation by the Penguins management has left their blue line extremely vulnerable to injury.
This trend has been evident for some time though, as the Penguins have always favoured offence over defense. The most recent move which comes to mind was the trade the Penguins made with the Anaheim Ducks. The move saw Simon Despres get moved for Ben Lovejoy in a 1 for 1 deal. After reading that deal, I was certain that a second or third round pick was going to be included. There's no way that a young player like Despres should get dealt for an aging, defensive defenceman. That is not to slight Lovejoy, but Despres will be a very good two way defender. I think the Penguins knew that he had potential, and did not want to face the inevitable pay raise that comes with a player of his age and skill level. They opted to go with a player who comes with a very affordable salary, ultimately losing out on a very skilled prospect.
The only way to survive long term is for the Penguins to deal some of their older forwards for prospects and draft picks. Having Dupuis and Kunitz play limited minutes is a very expensive way to round out ones third line. I believe that they need to look into adding youth into their lineup over the next couple seasons. By stockpiling skilled veteran forwards, they are actively clogging up their roster and salary cap alike.
Young prospects that they have collected are not being given NHL minutes, and are simply being buried in the AHL. Drafting and developing is going to be a very key part of the Penguins success long term. I am not worried in the short term, as they have two of the best centres in the game. However, they will not be able to beat teams like Washington, NY Islanders or the Lightning come post season. Without any defensive depth or youth, they are going to struggle to keep up with the elite in the East.
Consequently, the management of the Penguins have some major decisions to make. For starters, they need to make a decision on what to do with their older forwards. Chris Kunitz is one of those guys who still has solid trade value, despite being 35. He has a tonne of experience, playing with some great players over the years. He is still physical, a good skater and can contribute offensively even strength and on the PP. if the Penguins can find a buyer, they should look at dishing him off for some picks or prospects.
Rumor has it, the Canadians have been asking about Kunitz, in some sort of a deal which would see a prospect or two dealt to the Penguins. Unfortunately for the Penguins, the Canadians will not overpay for a veteran like Kunitz. They are looking forward, trying to build off of a young core which includes the likes of Subban, Price, Galchenyuk and Pacioretty. Chris Kunitz would only be a rental player for the Canadians, who ultimately just need some added scoring until their young guys can develop a bit more.
All in all, I expect the Penguins to have a good season, but don't anticipate much of a playoff push. The larger, more physical teams in the East will wear down the Penguin defense.