By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
After suffering consecutive early playoff exits at the hands of the rival Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been rebuilt to strike back.
The key acquisition of scoring winger Phil Kessel was absolutely necessary for a Penguins team that failed to generate scoring chances when star duo Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t on the ice. Over the past two regular seasons, the Penguins have been outscored 124-87 in even-strength situations without Crosby and Malkin.
On Tuesday morning, head coach Mike Johnston revealed that he is likely to pair Crosby and Kessel together on Pittsburgh’s top line.
Kessel’s arrival could supercharge a Penguins team that has frequently run into scoring outages, most notably under the playoff spotlight against the deeper, possession-dominant Rangers.
For six seasons in Toronto, Kessel never played with anyone close to resembling a No. 1 quality center. He was still able to compile a robust regular-season points-per-game of 0.883 over that stretch. If Johnston sticks with Kessel on Crosby’s right wing, Kessel could break his career high of 37 goals in a single season. He hit that mark twice as a member of the Leafs. A 40-goal-or-better first season in Pittsburgh is definitely reachable.
But it’s not just about Kessel. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has done a fine job of improving a roster that was starved of depth last season. He completed a one-sided trade, stealing Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks while dealing away under-producing third-line center Brandon Sutter and his excessive $3.3 million cap hit in the process.
Sutter struggled against the Rangers in even-strength situations last season, failing to score a goal and contributing one assist in nine games. Bonino is an all-around upgrade over Sutter at a cheaper cap hit of $1.9 million. He offers greater skill, is a possession driver and is better suited to fill a third-line role.
Another intriguing addition was the signing of former KHL forward Sergei Plotnikov. The 25-year-old signed a one-year, entry-level contract with Pittsburgh after spending the last three seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. In 2014, Plotnikov helped Russia to the 2014 IIHF World Championship and finished third in tournament scoring. He has the potential to be a very shrewd signing given his combination of strength, speed and two-way ability.
Versatile depth addition Eric Fehr will miss the start of the season due to elbow surgery. Whether he lines up at center or on the wing, Fehr is another possession driver who positively impacts linemates and their ability to light the lamp. Despite Sutter’s reputation as an expert penalty killer, Fehr excelled for the Washington Capitals in shorthanded situations. His shorthanded shot suppression of 47.8 over 60 minutes was the best of all Caps skaters.
Experienced center Matt Cullen was signed to a one-year, $800,000 bargain deal. At 38, this could be Cullen’s final NHL season. He is a player that Rutherford trusts, as Cullen helped the Carolina Hurricanes to a 2006 Stanley Cup championship while Rutherford was presiding as Canes GM. Cullen’s experience and faceoff expertise (56.7 percent in 2013-14) makes him the kind of depth signing that every Stanley Cup contender needs to round out its roster. The additions of Bonino, Fehr and Cullen should greatly improve Pittsburgh’s bottom six.
Back in the summer of 2009, the Penguins appeared to be on the verge of establishing a dynasty run after reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and hoisting Lord Stanley in 2009. After years of derailment, the Pens once again have the look of a genuine Stanley Cup contender.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.