2013-14 Preseason Roundtable
It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for seven years. Without further adieu, let’s meet our cast of characters for this year’s festivities. Bookmark these sites, follow these folks on Twitter, and you’ll be covered head to toe in hockey coverage.
Tecmo of the esteemed Pittsburgh Sports and Mini Ponies
Sean Gentille of the Sporting News
Tony Ferrante – the Godfather of hockey, of The Confluence
Sean Leahy of Yahoo!‘s Puck Daddy
Rich Miller – first time roundtable participant of The Hockey Guys
Jimmy Rixner – good friend and the man behind Pensburgh
Eric Majeski – training camp reporter extraordinaire of Lets Go Pens
tPB Derek – super Euro fan and one of the co-owners of The Pensblog
Nick Richter – one of the minds behind The PensNation
Ian Altenbaugh – the Pittsburgh correspondent for Hockeys Future
Let’s get right to it.
1. A new season brings realignment to the NHL. Looking around the Metropolitan Division, who is the team that poses the biggest threat to the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins?
PSAMP: What’s the Metropolitan Division? I only know the Patrick Division+some. I’d pick Columbus, but the Pens have been able to get to Sergei Bobrovsky. So I’ll pick the Rangers based solely on Henrik Lundqvist.
Gentille: I still think it’s the Rangers. Lundqvist is an elite goaltender, though last season was a bit of a step back. Derek Stepan has gotten better to the point where he’s a legit two-way, top-line center, and the defense is still talented and deep. That said, Grabovski makes the Caps a lot better, and I like Braden Holtby a lot. Also, if Cory Schneider starts more than Martin Brodeur, the Devils could be interesting; last season, they were an elite possession team submarined by terrible goaltending.
Ferrante: Iâ€™d have to say the Rangers. Lundqvist gives them stability in goal combined with their strong lineup. Philly will be decent, but shaky in goal. The Caps will find out what playing in a real division feels like.
Leahy: It’s shaping up to be another battle between the Rangers and Penguins for the division crown. I’m interested to see how the Capitals adapt to the new division after year and easy points in the Southeast. I can certainly see them finishing in the top three in the Metropolitan.
Miller: I think we will all agree that the Metro looks to be rather weak. To be perfectly honest, I’m not at all impressed by any of the other teams. Columbus is getting better, but they still missed the playoffs last season and are yet to accomplish anything of relevance as a franchise. Washington won’t be able to cherry pick wins in the Southeast Division anymore. The Rangers will be good thanks to their goaltending and defense, but at some point somebody has to step up and score goals for them. The Devils are a wild card, but the Canes and Flyers? LOL. Since I have to pick a team I’m going to go with the Islanders, even though they still have Evgeni Nabokov in net…for some reason. Regardless, the Pens should win this division.
Rixner: The Washington Capitals are built to be a good regular season team. In the past few months they’ve added Martin Erat, Mikhail Grabovski and might have Brooks Laich healthy again. That’s some serious depth at forward to go along with Ovechkin and Backstrom. The Rangers with a new coach and Henrik Lundqvist could always be a factor too.
Majeski: Tough one to start. The Caps, Rangers, Flyers, Isles, or even the Blue Jackets could give the Pens problems, but they all have some pretty big question marks too. I guess the Rangers would have the best odds though.
tPB Derek: The Islanders are the sexy pick, but don’t sleep on the Hurricanes. While they dissapointed last season, they have had a full camp to gel. Jordan Staal vs Crosby could be a great divisional matchup for years to come.
Richter: Initially when looking at the Metro Division, I expected it to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL. However, after further review, it appears to be a two-way race for the division title. The Devils and Flyers are in for a long season. The Islanders and Blue Jackets might have played over their heads last year. The Hurricanes will be better than last year, but it wonâ€™t be close to enough to win the division. Washington will be better than last year, but theyâ€™ll battle for third. The biggest threat to the Penguins will be the New York Rangers. Alain Vigneault will give his new team a much-needed makeover and the Rangers have the depth and talent needed to keep the Penguins from winning the division if they can adjust to Vigneaultâ€™s new system quickly.
Altenbaugh: After what I saw in the preseason, Columbus has the ability to surprise some people. They could get even better too when Nathan Horton is healthy. Not sure if theyâ€™ll be the biggest problem for the Pens this season, but itâ€™ll definitely be a new problem. There is also the Detroit Red Wings. Pens fans no longer have to worry about seeing them in the Stanley Cup Finals, if the encounter them in the post-season itâ€™ll be much earlier.
2. What do you make of the Penguins depth, especially in the bottom six? Is this a top heavy team?
PSAMP: Trading Jordan Staal made this team a theoretical top-heavy team, but the guys at the bottom have roles to play and will play them well. Either Bennett or Jokinen will be a “bottom-6” player while the other takes time with Malkin and Neal, immediately making the Sutter line dangerous. And it isn’t like Sutter is a joke himself. Also, Craig Adams is still on this team for a reason, as a checker and penalty killer, Joe Vitale will win faceoffs when given the chance and Dustin Jeffrey will, well, eat nachos in the stands again I guess. Unreal nacho-eating depth.
Gentille: Sure it is, but part of that is relative. Things are always going to look a little overloaded when those are your top two lines. The third line is going to be interesting, because its identity might hinge on what kind of game D’Agostini and Kobasew play. Are they going to try to recapture the 20-goal form, or are they going for something else? Jokinen can do pretty much anything, and Sutter wants more offensive opportunities. That’s all well and good, but I think third lines should focus on something, and I’m not sure what that is for Pittsburgh, largely because of the uncertainty on the right side.
Ferrante: Iâ€™ve been joking since Letang and Malkin signed their extensions that the Pens â€˜ forwards will be two strong lines and a bunch of throw-ins. While that may be exaggerating, their bottom six outside of Sutter is pretty weak. The continued play of Glass is perplexing to say the least.
Leahy: It’s very top heavy. That’s what life is like in a salary cap league when you’re paying tons of money to your top six guys. The hallmark of the 2009 Cup-winning team isn’t there in this 2013 squad. Teams that win the Stanley Cup get contributions from all over their lineup. Right now, the thin bottom-six should be a cause for some concern. Bennett/Jokinen (whoever doesn’t stick with the Malkin/Neal line) and Brandon Sutter could help things a bit if they step up offensively.
Miller: There’s no doubt this is a top-heavy team. The third line was inconsistent last season and struggled to establish an identity, whether it be shutting down opposing teams top lines or providing secondary scoring. Brandon Sutter needs to have a more consistent season from beginning to end, especially in the oppositions zone. The fourth line was an absolute joke, but at least you know what you’re getting with Craig Adams. More will be expected of Joe Vitale who is coming off a solid preseason – his improvement could make that line marginal if nothing else. There is still Tanner Glass though, unfortunately.
Rixner: I’m actually OK with the depth of the team. I thought Brandon Sutter played pretty well last year, and with a training camp in Pittsburgh under his belt, he should be a linchpin on the 3rd line. Pairing Beau Bennett (who can drive a line better here than maybe with 71/18 when Bennett would be the 3rd option to have the puck) would make for 2/3 of a solid line. Then I guess we hope Matt D’Agostini or Chuck Kobasew can revert back to where they were 20 goal scorers. 4th line is what it is- Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass. They’ll hit, grind and hopefully be able to play 8-9 minutes at even-strength a night and not get scored on. The Pens depth isn’t great, but I don’t think it needs to be in a cap world.
Majeski: The Pens are top heavy offensively, but what team with a one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin wouldn’t be? Brandon Sutter figures to be better after becoming more acclimated to this organization (basically had no preparation coming to a new team last year) and his left winger will be solid no matter if it’s Beau Bennett or Jussi Jokinen. We’ll see who the third wheel is and how it works out, but I’m not as concerned about the third line as some others seem to be, and the with the low ice time the fourth stands to get, they just need to not be a liability.
tPB Derek: The Penguins depth isn’t great. Think about this, what if Kunitz and Dupuis get hurt. Are you prepared for a Jeffey-Crosby-D’Agosnti line. UGH.
Richter: The Pens look very much like a top-heavy team, but with all due respect, we havenâ€™t given this current bottom six a chance to even show what they could do. Ray Shero and company didnâ€™t go out and get Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy cookie cutter replacements for the third line. Chuck Kobasew, Matt Dagostini, Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett will likely be a rotating cast of wingers for Brandon Sutter. They could be a pleasant surprise or a total bust. Regardless, the feel of the bottom six is much different. Far less grit and more scoring touch. Itâ€™ll be interesting to see how that will work out in the long run.
Altenbaugh: Iâ€™ll leave the Tanner Glass comments to someone else. I think Iâ€™m among the only people in the tri-state area who is okay with it. Itâ€™s not the best, but looking at the majority of othehr NHL rosters, itâ€™s not bad either. We have a habit of living in the Penguins bubble, where we want a third line that can be as good as other teamâ€™s second, and a fourth line with players who will go on to have more prominent roles after they hit free agency. As long as theyâ€™re getting the tough matchups, the Sutter line is not going to be a fun line to watch, It was fairly effective last year though and should be much more effective this season given Sutter has a full training camp. Loss of Cooke hurts, but Kennedy was a non-factor for much of the season, and an upgrade would be nice, and Kobasew seems to have that spot. Vitale as a regular fourth-liner is great. The more Vitale the better. His combination of speed and sandpaper is something the Pens need more of, not less.
3. With Fleury in the doghouse to start this season; how would you define “success” for him at this point in his career? What has to happen for Fleury to rise from the ashes?
PSAMP: I’m an unabashed Fleury fan, might as well get that out of the way. Success for MAF is getting the team to the playoffs and retaining the starting job there. He has gotten most of the crap for the playoff failures, despite crippling defense in front of him and the offense literally dying in the Boston series in which he did not play. Yes, he’ll have to step up without a Vokoun security blanket, but he’s always held court in the regular season and I don’t see that changing. We’ll see how the playoffs shake out with realignment and revisit this if/when we reconvene for the Faceoff Factor playoffs roundtable.
Gentille: Playoff success, and a series loss that isn’t largely his fault. Period. He’s generally been a fine regular-season goalie, and he certainly can be again, but if wins don’t follow, nothing matters. He could go 35-20-3 with a .924 save percentage, but if he gets yanked in Game 3 of the first round, that’s what people will remember.
Ferrante: Seems pretty clear at this point his failures are mental rather than tweaking anything physical in his game. Moreover, I donâ€™t even think that a very good regular season for MAF gives any guarantees for the playoffs. Heâ€™s had good regular seasons before, only to perform poorly in the playoffs.
Leahy: Losing in the postseason isn’t a blight on Fleury, it’s how he’s lost and how he’s played. The playoff meltdowns have to be a thing of the past. Maybe the sports psychologist thing works. Maybe he realizes he’s down to his final chance. Either way, what he does in the postseason, win or lose, will ultimately define success for him this season. That is, of course, if he’s still the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie come mid-April.
Miller: This season is probably going to prove to be the most important of his career. The first thing he needs to do is have a good start to establish some confidence and shake the memories of the Islanders series. Then, simply play well enough to get the team to the postseason. And that’s it. Nothing he does in the regular season will be of any worth if he once again tanks in the playoffs. If can finally find a way to carry his regular season play to the postseason, only then should he be considered redeemed.
Rixner: I can’t figure out Fleury and I think sticking with him might have been a major mistake. The goalie market wasn’t brimming with options but seeing how vital a goalie can be this time, I can’t believe the Pens wouldn’t go and try to trade for a guy from s teams that have 2 starting caliber goalies like Jonas Hiller or Jaroslav Halak to try and solve their problem. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and expecting a different result. Marc-Andre Fleury has fallen flat on his face 2 years in a row. How many more years does he have to doom the team before they cut bait and try to go a different path?
Majeski: I don’t get all of the hand-wringing over Marc-Andre Fleury, at least not now. Playoff issues aside, his regular seasons are pretty predictable: he’s a bit of a slow starter, but otherwise one of the better guys to have in the net. Yes, the spring will bring a familiar set of questions, but there’s nothing he (or anyone else) can do to answer them until the playoff bell rings. To rise from the playoff ashes, he’ll need to play well enough to keep his net. Winning wouldn’t hurt either.
tPB Derek: We are in a terrible place with the Penguins. They themselves, by completely flaming out in the playoffs, have made it look like the regular season doesn’t count. It still does. Fleury is still a viable option in net, if he has a solid season it will help. But his career is now ride or die with his playoff performance. There is no disputing that.
Richter: Success for Marc-Andre Fleury isnâ€™t having a good regular season; itâ€™s having a stellar postseason run. Itâ€™s easy for any goalie to be relaxed with the kind of lineup the Penguins roll out in front of you any given night. With Fleury, I think that sometimes heâ€™s a little too relaxed. Flower is as physically gifted a goalie as there is in the NHL and in order for him to be successful this season (especially in the postseason) he needs to have a laser-like focus and play as if every game depends on him. Re-learn how to play with that pressure and harness those experiences for a redemptive postseason run.
Altenbaugh: Heâ€™s always been a good regular season goalie. Success for him will be stealing a playoff series. If there was a player who could â€˜flip a switchâ€™ it is probably him. Itâ€™s a mighty hard switch to flip though.
4. Crosby/Malkin aside, who do you think will have the biggest impact for the Penguins this season?
PSAMP: God I want to say Double J because he put in about 65 preseason goals but I suspect several others will mention him. So I’ll go with Roberts Scuderi and Bortuzzo. Scuds hasn’t lost much and could’ve easily stayed in LA. I’ve long been a Bortuzzo supporter as a WBS fan. If they can help shore up the defense to basically anything better than the past 2-3 playoffs, this team could be better than great.
Gentille: Letang, if he can stay healthy. I thought the mixed reaction to his contract was bizarre. He had more even-strength points/60 than any other regular defenseman last season, at 2.18. No. 2 was Cody Franson with 1.46. That’s a canyon. If he ever really figures out the power play, he’s going to run away with the Norris.
Ferrante: Iâ€™m looking forward to seeing how Rob Scuderiâ€™s return shores up the Penguins defensive corps. It should allow guys like Letang more freedom on the offensive end. For the forwards, if Beau Bennett stays on the 2nd line for most of the year, he could make that line even more dangerous than it already is.
Leahy: I’m really excited about what Jussi Jokinen has done in preseason with Malkin/Neal. Granted, it’s just preseason, but if that chemistry is developing quickly for those three, that’s a great sign. His ability in the faceoff circle over a full season will also be welcomed.
Miller: There’s no question Beau Bennett is a star in the making and will have an impact when he is given the opportunity, but someone I see flying a little more under the radar is Robert Bortuzzo. From what I’ve seen this preseason his game has improved dramatically at both ends of the ice, and his addition to the lineup could give the Penguins a very formidable third defensive pairing.
Rixner: I want to pick Kris Letang, but I’m not sure that he can stay healthy. With Rob Scuderi as a very capable and reliable partner now, Letang should be free to skate his heart out and be able to make an even bigger impact offensively than he already has had. I’m talking like 15 goals, 60 assists for just a monster season if he’d be able to stay healthy.
Majeski: I think it might be whomever “loses” out on the second line left wing job, which likely means it will be both Jokinen and Bennett at various points of the season. As I mentioned before, that winger will go a long way towards shoring up that third line. Honorable mention to Kris Letang, whose skating alone has the ability to take over a game
tPB Derek: Beau Bennett is too easy of a pick. So for us, it is all about the defense. The Penguins defense, to a man, best be elite this season. Look for Bortuzzo and Scuderi to carry the group.
Richter: Jussi Jokinen has the potential to be a great and unexpected fit on the second line. Most everyone wrote him in as a third line winger who can occasionally play center. However, Jokinenâ€™s a much better player when he has a role that is more skill-oriented, but that doesnâ€™t mean he cannot play a bottom-six role. I expect Jokinen to be somewhere in the 20-25 goal range this season.
Altenbaugh: Teams win with secondary scoring. So players like Bennett, Sutter, Dâ€™Agostini, Jokinen, who may can all fill the net, will be huge. Defense as well. How the Pens depth defenders perform will be a big deal. We all know Orpik-Martin is as solid as they come, but they played 30+ minutes last year on occasions, way too much for any defenseman not named Duncan Keith or Nick Lidstrom.
5. Give us your sleeper team for 2013-14. Who are you watching to start the year?
PSAMP: As an NYC resident I’ve long been on that Isles tip and I think even mentioned them in past season roundtables. But the departure of that jerk Kovalchuk and addition of Jagr immediately gets my attention in New Jersey. Not that I think they’ll be world-beaters, but Jagr has that knack for making teams better and I’ll be seeing a lot of them anyway so why not.
Gentille: The Devils, like I said earlier, and the Panthers. Florida was really unlucky last year, based on a low PDO and several key injuries. Their goaltending was also bad, though Jakob Markstrom had sparks of brilliance. Adding Tim Thomas, seriously, should make them a lot better, as will getting back guys like Kris Versteeg. I also liked what they did out of campâ€”signing Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert on the cheap were great moves.
Ferrante: Itâ€™s gonna be fun to see if Columbus continues to improve, but theyâ€™re in a tough division to show that much of an improvement compared to their previous division. That goes for the Islanders, as well.
Leahy: I don’t know if the Ottawa Senators can be considered a sleeper, but I’m very high on them this season. Going off the board, I like the Nashville Predators to get back to the playoffs. Pekka Rinne should be a Vezina Trophy candidate and the addition of Seth Jones will only improve their defense. They consistently get good, balanced scoring, which should get them to a playoff spot.
Miller: I’m not exactly sure how successful they will be, but I am really excited to watch the Colorado Avalanche this season. The have a ton of talented forwards and should score plenty of goals, but their defense is so unbelievably bad it’s impossible to think their games will be anything less than entertaining. Also, Patrick Roy is now their coach, so I really don’t have to say anything else here. The Senators are probably going to be good also, which will be really annoying.
Rixner: I’m quite interested to see what the Islanders will do. We saw how dangerous they were last spring, can they keep that up and take the next step in what should be just a brutal division of several really talented teams that will all be playoff contenders. They might be in-line for a step backwards if they can’t get the goaltending, but watching that young team try to grow will be one of the more interesting storylines for me.
Majeski: I’m not sure you can call them a sleeper due to all the high profile young talent they have, but I’ll be curious to see how Edmonton does. I think key injuries may force a slow start, but if everyone gets healthy, they should be fun to watch.
tPB Derek: Columbus. They quietly built a solid team. They may have just the right mix. Not even kidding.
Richter: The Dallas Stars have a much better team than they did one year ago. Theyâ€™ll have much more skill and talent and should be much more exciting to watch. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn should be a lot of fun to watch and Valeri Nichushkin has the potential to be a stud in the NHL.
Altenbaugh: Columbus. The losing mentality was gutted from the roster, new GM, new stars, new division, new start. Also, imagine the outrage at the end of the season, if a team like the Jackets make the playoffs but the Flyers, Rangers, or another team with a long history and Cup aspirations misses the playoffs. Complete, hyperbolic outrage of the world-ending variety.
6. Finally, season prediction for the Penguins. Let em’ rip.
PSAMP: 50+ wins and a Cup. Come on, I gotta be an ultimate homer and hope for the best.
Gentille: Another really good regular season and a Hart for Crosby, if he’s healthy. Probably a regular-season Metro title. Fleury makes them impossible to predict beyond thatâ€”he’s why I’m not guessing that the’ll win the conference or the Cup. There’s just no way to believe that he’ll keep it together. Another factor is how much they rely on the rush and power play to score goals. I think elite puck possession is a good predictor of success, and the Penguins aren’t in that category. It doesn’t mean they won’t win, or can’tâ€”just that they’re not a wise bet at this point.
Ferrante: I think itâ€™s pretty clear that the Penguins will be a playoff team. But my confidence in Fleury is just about gone now. So I can see Fleury performing decent in the regular season, but Iâ€™d be pleasantly shocked to see the Penguins compete for the Cup again with Fleury in goal.
Leahy: Metropolitan Division champs, but falling short of the Cup Final. Until the depth production improves and Marc-Andre Fleury gets over his postseason woes, I can’t have them going deep in the playoffs. Looks at teams like Boston and Chicago, and they’re sound up and down their lineup. Right now, I don’t see that in the Pens.
Miller: Although I do see them winning the division, I believe the Pens will have their share of struggles this season. This is a veteran team and they know by now that regular season accolades are relatively inconsequential. This could lead to some slumps here and there over the course of an 82 game season. Still, they should win the division and easily make the playoffs. Ultimately though, barring a miraculous postseason turnaround by Fleury I believe the end result of this season will be the same as the last – a loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the hands of the Boston Bruins.
Rixner: Health willing, the Pens should breeze through the regular season. With Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang, Kunitz, etc they just have way too much offensive talent for the average NHL team to slow down. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Pens finished 2nd in the division, but no lower. When it comes to the playoffs, who knows. I’d like to think they rally behind Fleury and can make another deep run, but unless the team plays a lot better defensively in the spring, I suspect the story of the year ends in frustration again
Majeski: I’m not exactly going out a limb here, but I’d be shocked if they don’t put together one of the better regular season records in the league. They should win the division, but all that means nothing for an organization with only one goal.
tPB Derek: The Penguins will fall a bit this season. Let’s scrap last year, because it was a lockout year. All teams are even this season. The last 82 game season the Penguins went 51-25-6. 108 points.That year they were 13-10 against their division.They were 3-1 against Carolina, 2-1-1 against caps. They were 1-0 against the Blue Jackets, and 0-1 against the Wings. Against the west that year they were a staggering 13-2-3. Against the East they were 38-23-3. Ask yourself, is this current team, as constructed, as good as that team? We think their schedule is tougher, and there is no way they are going to cruise against the West like that again. Our prediction is around 90-95 points. What if Fleury collaspes? What if Vokoun is out for a long time? This season isn’t about one game when someone plays well. It is about the entire body of work. And God, don’t discount the Olympic break. The Penguins three most important people, Crosby, Malkin and Dan Bylsma are agruably under the biggest pressures from their countries. How will those three be mentally after that?
Richter: Stanley Cup or Bust for the Pens. Second prediction is that Columbus will feel the wrath of Pens invasions. Cue up the nWo music.
Altenbaugh: The Penguins have won between 65-75% of their games the last five seasons so another 45-55 win season seems reasonable. As far as the post-season goes, theyâ€™ll contend for a cup and anything short of an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals will be considered a disappointment.
Thanks to everyone for participating! Add your answers in below.