Penguins’ defense needs mending in off-season

A healthy Sidney Crosby will be key for the Penguins next season. (credit: Courtesy of Thebeev via Flickr) A healthy Sidney Crosby will be key for the Penguins next season. (credit: Courtesy of Thebeev via Flickr)

In a year filled with attention-grabbing headlines and news-filling brawls, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season ended with more of a fizzle than a bang. Although the Penguins came back 3–2 after being down 3–0 in the first round with the Philadelphia Flyers, the team ultimately could not overcome its defensive struggles and fell 5–1 on Sunday to lose the series.

Throughout the regular season, the Penguins hid its defensive weaknesses behind stellar offensive play. It was easy to mask giving up two or three goals a game when the offense consistently scored three to four goals. Even the statistics were deceptive; the defensive metrics ranked the Penguins’ defense as the 15th best in the league. But one look at its series against the Flyers quickly reveals that it is not even close to a championship-caliber defense.

The Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury took a beating this year due to his team’s porous defense. He is still one of the better goalies in the league, but it puts a lot of strain on a goalie’s body when he is expected to stop nearly 40 shots every night. When Fleury is on top of his game, the Penguins are one of the league’s best with the high-octane offense backed up by solid goalkeeping.

During its last off-season, the Penguins’ biggest issue was the health of captain Sidney Crosby, but with his successful recovery, the Penguins can focus on more pressing problems. The team’s offense was ranked No. 1 this season, and most of the main scorers are still under contract. Winger Steve Sullivan is an unrestricted free agent. With an expected increase in the salary cap, along with the hope of reworking Crosby’s and alternate captain Jordan Staal’s contracts to sign them long term, there will be at least $5 million of cap space. This should be more than enough to resign Sullivan while still keeping a fair amount of salary flexibility.

On the defensive end, the Penguins need a lot of help. Defenders Matt Niskanen and Brian Strait are both restricted free agents, meaning the team gets to match any offer made by others if they want to resign them.

The Penguins may be better off letting both these players walk and promoting one of their young defenders, while using their extra cap space to sign a young second-tier defender such as current Montreal Maple Leafs defender Chris Campoli or Dallas Star defender Sheldon Souray. Another option would be not to resign any of their free agents and go after a top tier defender like Washington Capitals player Dennis Wideman or Nashville Predators blue-liner Ryan Suter.

Regardless of their needs this off-season, the Penguins will be returning most of the same players from this season. The key for the team is to find the few pieces it needs to toughen up defense and allow Fleury to make it through the season, in order to allow its high-powered offense to carry them to all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.