Countdown to camp: Replacing Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta won’t be easy for Penguins
When general manager Jim Rutherford takes his perch above the practice rink and coach Mike Sullivan steps onto the ice to begin the first day of training camp Friday morning at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, both probably will have smiles on their faces.
They’ve made substantive changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins roster over the summer designed to make the team younger, faster and harder to play against.
The upgrades, however, came at a cost.
Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, cornerstone performers on back-to-back Stanley Cup teams in 2016-17, are gone. Kessel’s unconventional attitude and defensive indifference greased his path to Arizona. Maatta was moved to Chicago, for most intents and purposes, to open salary-cap space.
With two days left before the start of camp, here’s a look at the areas where the Penguins will have to replace the two most high-profile players they lost in the offseason.
1. Kessel’s contributions
• Offensive production: Kessel is one of only 15 NHL players to record at least a point per game in each of the last two seasons. To expect Alex Galchenyuk, the winger acquired from Arizona in exchange for Kessel, or any one player to pick up all that slack seems foolhardy. The Penguins will need several players to step into the void.
The Penguins didn’t trade Kessel because they thought they had a horde of players ready to replace his production, of course. They traded him in an effort to become harder to play against. Last season, they were sixth in the league in goals for and 14th in the league in goals against. They probably wouldn’t mind dropping a few spots in the former category if it means a major upgrade in the latter.
• Power-play position: Kessel’s tenure with the Penguins lasted four seasons. During that span, they had the best power play in the league (23.0%). That’s not a coincidence. His puck-moving acumen from the left half-wall was off the charts.
In one sense, it will be easy for the Penguins to replace Kessel on the power play. They have a 40-goal scorer on the roster, Jake Guentzel, who reached those heights with hardly any power-play time last season. Galchenyuk is also a proven power-play performer. The problem will be finding a configuration that works. The Penguins either will have to abandon the idea of having a right-handed shot in the left circle or try someone like Kris Letang, Justin Schultz or Nick Bjugstad in the role.
2. Maatta’s minutes
• Blue-line rotation: Maatta made his NHL debut as a 19-year-old in 2013. Since then, only three players have logged more ice time for the Penguins: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang. Maatta had his problem areas over the years, especially as it relates to foot speed, but the vast majority of the time, he was a reliable minutes muncher.
So who steps into the void on the left side of the blue line? Marcus Pettersson is the obvious answer, but he’s a second-year pro who has yet to prove himself capable of handling a heavy workload. Jack Johnson did not fare well in his first season in Penguins colors. It remains an open question.
• Penalty killing: The Penguins face a similar dilemma on the penalty kill. Since 2013, the only defensemen to play more short-handed minutes than Maatta are Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The Penguins will need another defender to fill the void.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .