As you get ready for the Penguins to open the season today in Philadelphia, here is a quick guide to what’s new, what’s old and what’s kind of in-between.
The Malkin line – Although Evgeni Malkin had an impressive bounce-back regular season, he is trying to bounce back once again after disappearing in the Toronto bubble as the Pens were embarrassed by Montreal.
But he’s back with Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker and they were the best – and fastest - line in training camp.
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin – The Pens top defensive pairing (and one of the best in the NHL) was broken up when Dumoulin was sidelined by an ankle injury November 30th and he never appeared fully recovered when play finally resumed. But after an extended rest, he looks like the old Dumo and Letang figures to benefit by the return of Todd Rierden who was his mentor early in his NHL career.
Mike Sullivan – Sullivan made some questionable coaching decisions in that forgettable Montreal series but it was his long-time assistants who lost their jobs. It might be fair to wonder if his message is getting stale but, according to Jim Rutherford, himself, Sully has the GM’s complete confidence. Still, Sullivan must deliver more than another disappointing first round exit. Actually, they need to get to the playoffs first.
Assistant Coaches - Todd Rierden returns after losing his job as Head Coach in Washington and Mike Vellucci joins the staff after running the farm team in Wilkes-Barre-Scranton. Rierden will again oversee the defensemen and power play, while Vellucci will handle the penalty killers.
Rierden’s fresh ideas on the power play should help – as long as the stars listen to him.
Defensive Pairs – Initially, newcomers Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci formed the third pair but, in the last few days of camp, the Pens split John Marino and Marcus Pettersson. Now, expect Matheson (who looked good in camp) to skate with Marino for a more aggressive, puck-moving second pair while Pettersson will help anchor Ceci on the third pair.
Bottom 6 forwards - Mark Jankowski is a bit of a reclamation. His production in Calgary tailed off last season but is known as a solid penalty-killer and the Pens hope he will find just enough of a scoring touch. Moving Brandon Tanev to his line may help. Colton Sceviour is a classic depth guy and will probably compete with Evan Rodrigues for the 12th forward spot as soon as Rodrigues is finished playing the part of top line right wing.
Long Hair – Both Brandon Tanev and Sam Lafferty figured they’d try a different look and not that the long hair has anything to do with it but Lafferty actually looks faster; he was already fast.
What’s Old and New
Kasperi Kapanen – Kapanen never played in Pittsburgh but was the Penguins first round draft pick in 2014 before going to Toronto in the Kessel trade which worked out well. Now Kapanen is back (for a first round pick) which should make Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel even better; that is, whenever Kapanen shows up. Despite plenty of notice, Kapanen somehow still had immigration issues getting out of Finland and will miss the first few games. He is going to have to get up to speed very quickly.
Power Play – It’s old because the first unit – Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, Rust, Letang - remains intact. It’s new because Rierden is trying to instill a power play that adds more movement rather than passing around the perimeter looking for the perfect, pretty play. As mentioned earlier, it sounds great in theory – and has looked good at times in camp – but the players need to not just listen to Rierden but to put his coaching into action.
Casey DeSmith – After a solid job behind Matt Murray two years ago, DeSmith languished in the AHL last season, as Jarry burst onto the NHL scene and outplayed Murray. Now DeSmith is happy to be back and he has the perfect demeanor for a back-up goalie. The problem will be to keep him sharp since they don’t play back to back until Feb 1st and 2nd which is 10 and 11 games into the season.
Now you’re ready for the season. We’ll find out in fairly short order if the Penguins are, as well.