The Pittsburgh Penguins have won four Stanley Cup Playoff series in the past five seasons, a stretch preceded by back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final with what was the NHL's best collection of young star power.
When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy and on the roster, the expectation is to win four playoff rounds every season. There has been plenty of regular-season success in Pittsburgh, but the roster has eroded around them and losing three straight games after taking a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the second round meant the end for general manager Ray Shero and, eventually, coach Dan Bylsma.
New GM Jim Rutherford has tried to bolster the Penguins' depth, and he's earned deserved praise for some low-cost, low-risk additions. His big roster move, trading talented sniper James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, played to mixed reviews.
The other big acquisition is coach Mike Johnston, who had plenty of experience as an NHL assistant and plenty of success with Portland in the Western Hockey League, but is now the lead guy at this level for the first time.
Pittsburgh has won 15 playoff games in the past two seasons, and that cost the GM and the coach their jobs. The Penguins might not be the standard for success in the NHL anymore, but that hasn't lowered expectations. They are the favorites to win the Metropolitan Division again, but whether they deserve to be considered among the NHL's elite remains to be determined.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Penguins:
The Penguins were a pretty simple team to figure out last season. When Crosby or Malkin were on the ice, they were one of the best teams in the League. When they weren't, they were a lottery team. All teams see drop-offs from their stars to their grunts, but the chasm in puck possession was alarming.
Hornqvist will have to score to replace Neal, but whether Spaling can be more than an average third-line player could be the key to that trade. Having a healthy and productive Pascal Dupuis, once a Spaling-like add on to a major trade, is critical. Crosby still won the League scoring title and MVP, but the rotating cast of characters on his right side was a drag on his output.
Steve Downie could be a steal on a one-year deal, but he's had some serious health issues. A full season of Marcel Goc and the addition of Blake Comeau is a huge boost for the fourth line, which was one of the worst in the NHL last season.
It is still going to be up to Crosby and Malkin to carry the offense, but the hope is that a little more help from the bottom two lines could go a long way in the postseason.
Christian Ehrhoff was one of the best signings of the offseason. He might not match Matt Niskanen's traditional production from 2013-14, but he could be an upgrade and help the Penguins keep the puck a little more. Paul Martin has been the best defenseman on the roster for the past two seasons, and remains underappreciated in the city after a slow start to his tenure with the club.
Kris Letang is supposed to be the best defenseman on the roster, and he's being paid like an elite player. If he can put his health problems from last season behind him, this could be a big year for him to try to reestablish his value.
Letang played well with rookie Olli Maatta, who was a revelation early in the season, dropped off a bit by the end and could miss the start of the season after having shoulder surgery in May. He and another young defenseman, most likely Simon Despres, have a chance to help make this defense corps one of the best in the East.
Marc-Andre Fleury was fine during the 2014 postseason, which is obviously a big upgrade from the 2012 and 2013 disasters. However, he's in the last year of his contract and probably needs to be more than fine in 2014-15 to not have his future with the organization in doubt.
Thomas Greiss was another strong, sneaky pickup by the Penguins. Greiss has three seasons with at least 16 games played and a .912 save percentage in the past four, including a .920 in 25 during the 2013-14 campaign. Having an above-average backup goaltender can be the difference in winning a division title or claiming the top spot in the conference, something the Penguins will aspire to do.
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: PENGUINS
Undervalued: Patric Hornqvist -- With the Nashville Predators last season, Hornqvist skated alongside Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson and Matt Cullen. He scored 22 goals, finished with 53 points and had 248 shots on goal in 76 games. Excluding the shortened season in 2012-13 when he was hurt, Hornqvist averaged 78 games with 26 goals, 51 points and 268 shots on goal in his four full NHL seasons. This season he'll play on a line with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. You do the math.
Overvalued: Kris Letang -- There's no denying Letang's production when he's on the ice. However, he's missed 89 games in the past three seasons (42 percent of Pittsburgh's games) and there's a lot of risk in drafting him as a top-10 defenseman. Letang was minus-8 last season, his first minus rating since 2008-09, and had six points in 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Draft with caution, and definitely don't select him to be your No. 1 defenseman.
Sleeper: Christian Ehrhoff -- Though a minus-27 rating in Buffalo last season will likely scare off many fantasy drafters, you should quickly realize that number will change as a member of the Penguins. Ehrhoff, 32, has plenty of offensive upside, and if he ends up playing more than 3:00 per game on the power play he could be in line for a big season and finish as a top-20 fantasy defenseman.
Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes
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