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:
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.
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.