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Kingerski: Penguins Free Agency Moves, Offseason Spot On
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Kingerski: Penguins Free Agency Moves, Offseason Spot On

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Jack Johnson (left) Jim Rutherford (center) Matt Cullen (right): Photos Courtesy of NHL/Getty Images

Escape the trappings of tribalism; one side insists new Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson is no better than old defenseman Matt Hunwick and a bum, the other side says Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford can do no wrong. Both are equally extreme and incorrect. Put the Penguins offseason in full context, and the results are positive. As the remaining potential Penguins free agent acquisitions anxiously await a phone call, the Penguins are already well established.

Counterpoint to Matt Gajtka’s column yesterday: The Penguins aren’t running in place, they’re firmly standing pat unless something great comes along.

The Penguins broke down film, examined deep analytics and decided Johnson was their man. In fact, sources told Pittsburgh Hockey Now, after this site independently confirmed the eventual Johnson signing, the coaches were “psyched.” The Penguins followed the Johnson deal by signing the locker room leader Matt Cullen who can play fourth line center or left wing and has one more year left in the tank, for only $650,000.

Yeah yeah, bad analytics and one of the players will be 42-years-old. The Penguins free agent budget didn’t allow for big swings, but they may have hit a pair of home runs. Seriously.

Compare this offseason to the last. Last summer, the Penguins were left empty-handed and waiting for third line center. At the trade deadline, they had to search again on the trade market. Compare the addition of depth and talent this offseason to the losses of Cullen, Trevor Daley, and Chris Kunitz, last year. The Penguins currently have a stout lineup with the slick Cullen completing the fourth line. And, the Penguins have a myriad of options with three centers, Cullen, Riley Sheahan, and Derick Brassard who are also able to play left wing.

Add Daniel Sprong to the lineup–we may finally find out what the kid can do–and suddenly the Penguins are a stout forward group:

Guentzel-Crosby-Sprong

Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

Rust-Brassard-Kessel

Cullen-Sheahan-Simon

Is there a line above which doesn’t pop? Sprong may falter. Phil Kessel may not click with Brassard. And Zach Aston-Reese is waiting in the wings. Tinkering and changes will be necessary, as they are every season.

The blue line has great potential. Justin Schultz proved himself a solid contributor at both ends last season. Jamie Oleksiak is a net-clearing thumper who can contribute offensively (but is best when his game is simple). Johnson will fit the Penguins well as the Penguins will ask him to play to his strengths, skating, be physical, and move the puck forward.

Dumoulin-Letang

Johnson-Schultz

Maatta-Oleksiak or Oleksiak-Maatta

Johnson’s veteran presence may win him the spot beside Justin Schultz. Chemistry will ultimately determine the second and third pairing, as Jamie Oleksiak could easily slot beside Schultz instead.

As you look at the lineup, there isn’t a weak point. The Penguins have improved and are set up to deal from a position of strength should the price tag on a right-handed defenseman like Justin Faulk falls into acceptable range. Or the Montreal Canadiens make an offer which is too good for Brassard. Or something bigger comes along.

Perhaps the forward crew could be harder to play against, and the defensive pairings have to sort themselves out, but the Penguins are set. They don’t have the deep, dynamic offensive weapons which Toronto and hometown boy John Tavares possess. Nor do the Penguins have the depth and physicality of Boston. However, the Penguins again have the best team in the Metro Division, better defense than Toronto, and more high-end ability than Boston. The Penguins can skate with Tampa Bay and have a better bottom-six group.

The Penguins as constituted are a Stanley Cup contender without a glaring weakness. In Blackjack terms, last year they tried to stand on 16 then decided to hit at the trade deadline. This year, they have a solid 19, maybe 20 as Johnson recaptures his top form.

The book says stand…unless you’re able to draw an ace.

 

 

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Robert Ulishney

    July 3, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Again, great points. Love the Blackjack analogy. I’m starting to see the light on the Johnson signing. Looking at what Cole and Beagle got makes Johnson’s contract look like a bargain. Basically they traded Hunwick and Sheary for Johnson, Cullen, and a bag of money. Seems okay to me. And somewhere b/w this time last year and now they also managed to upgrade from McKegg and Rowney to Brassard and Sheahan. I like where they are.

    • Jay95

      July 7, 2018 at 1:19 am

      I agree that I’m coming around on the signing. The Pens coaching, and style, seems to benefit athletic, offensively gifted, dmen. Schultz was a lot younger but had similar issues. He was a Trainwreck mentally and his defendive awareness had become awful. And, he was a veteran. Guys like Daley have had success here too.

      I’d also add to the trade of Sheary and Hunwick. The Pens not only got Cullen and Johnson, but Sheahan as well. Essentially two Centers who can play LW and a D man who is probobly better than his advanced stats say. None of the players put up numbers like Sheary is capable of. But, they are now 6 centers deep (including Blueger) and have more flexibility.

  2. Jerry

    July 4, 2018 at 7:10 am

    I like this also. I would tweak your lines and pairings but it is July. Anything can happen at camp. Pens fans were all upset last year because the Pens didn’t have a 5th top 5 D. They go get one at a $ they can afford who fits the system and no one likes it? As for Cullen I like the move. He brings versatility, depth, leadership and example to the youngsters. The Pens were missing that. They had great leadership last season but you still need that guy to reach the rookies. Much better than a year ago!

  3. Zach Smith

    July 8, 2018 at 10:25 am

    I also don’t see any glaring hole in the lineup. Also, if it doesn’t turn out well, we can trade for someone better. ZAR should be on the 3rd line with Derick Brassard & Phil Kessel. We should reunite Hornqvist with Crosby & Guentzel. Malkin with Hagelin & Rust would be a very fast line that teams would have trouble keeping up with. After that, you have plenty of options. Cullen & Sheahan, who can both play LW & Center, could be paired with Daniel Sprong, Jimmy Hayes or Jean Sebastien-Dea.

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