After another early exit from the NHL Playoffs, winds of change are blowing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have reached the Eastern Conference Final just once, while making early first and second round exits against arguably inferior teams four times in the past five years.
The Penguins appeared to be on the verge of a berth in the Conference Final this year after dominating early in their second round series against the New York Rangers. The Pens posted back-to-back shutouts en route to a 3-1 series lead, but let the series slip away in seven games to a surprisingly resilient Rangers squad.
Change has been swift and dramatic in Pittsburgh. The Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero, replacing him with Jim Rutherford. The former Carolina Hurricanes’ boss wasted no time in making his mark, immediately firing coach Dan Bylsma, and replacing him this week with rookie coach Mike Johnston.
With the 2014 NHL Draft on Friday, the challenge facing Rutherford will be remaking a Pens’ lineup that has consistently dominated during the regular season, while coming up short in the NHL Playoffs.
With current odds of 10/1 in futures wagering, Pittsburgh are among the early summertime favorites to win the 2015 Stanley Cup. But what will the Penguins look like when they hit the ice in October?
Most likely to depart the Penguins fold this summer are unrestricted free agents Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Jussi Jokinen. Niskanen enjoyed a breakout year on the blueline after Paul Martin was felled by injury last fall. The 27-year old Finn recorded 46 points and was among the NHL’s leaders with a +33, while Orpik has been a mainstay on the Pittsburgh blueline for a decade.
But their departure will make room for the growing number of young stud defensemen in the Penguins’ system, including Olli Maata and Derrick Pouliot. Jokinen’s grit and leadership will also be missed, further compounding concerns about the club’s lack of identity.
Key cogs in the Penguin machine that raised the Cup in 2009 remain on the roster, but speculation about major trades has become an annual summer pastime in Pittsburgh. Pens’ captain Sidney Crosby, winner of the 2014 Hart and Art Ross Trophies is staying put. But forward James Neal, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenceman Kris Letang are rumored to be part of trade discussions that would remake the franchise.
While the Penguins enjoy depth on the blueline, the prospect cupboard is otherwise bare. The club also has almost $16 million in cap space available for next season, but with only 14 regulars signed, Rutherford will have his hands full blending superstar veterans and young talented prospects into a team that can once again be playing NHL hockey in June.