Which direction are Penguins headed after offseason roster changes?
Just after signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday afternoon, winger Brandon Tanev held a conference call with reporters.
It was clear that he had a different take on the state of the Penguins than those who were lobbing questions at him.
The inquisitors wanted to know what Tanev was going to do to help turn things around after the Penguins suffered an embarrassing first-round playoff exit in the spring.
Tanev wanted to talk about the championship pedigree of the team he was joining.
“(It’s) a great organization that’s had a lot of success in the past, winning Stanley Cups, and there’s still a very strong group of core players that’s part of this team,” Tanev said. “The excitement and the buzz around the team made me feel at home and it felt like it was a great fit and family for me. Extremely excited to be part of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.”
So who’s right?
Are the Penguins a flailing franchise whose offseason moves haven’t stopped — and might have accelerated — a descent into mediocrity?
Or are they a team still confidently hanging around in title contention, ready to parlay a handful of summer transactions into a return to the top of the mountain?
A case could easily be made either way.
The Penguins are on their way back to the top:
• Starting in December of last season, general manager Jim Rutherford has acquired eight NHL-level players in trade or free agency. They average 24 years of age. None is older than 27. Most are considered at least above-average skaters. Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun and Tanev could accurately be described as fast.
The Penguins returned to championship prominence by reemphasizing speed in 2016. They’re making an honest effort to do so again.
• The combination of Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin was dynamic during the team’s championship run of2016-17. When they were on the ice together at even strength, the Penguins outscored opponents, 64-45.
The magic was gone after that. Over the past two seasons, the Penguins were outscored 79-72 when the pair was on the ice together.
Will new linemates — probably Galchenyuk, maybe Kahun or Tanev — spark Malkin’s production? It’s hard to imagine they’ll hurt.
• Kessel’s production didn’t tail off in his last season with the Penguins. Management may have had concerns about Kessel’s comportment off the ice, but that can easily be dismissed as soap-opera background noise.
The real problem Kessel caused for the Penguins on the ice was his casual disregard for concepts like defensive responsibility or basic puck management. All those shorthanded and overtime goals allowed with Kessel on the ice are evidence.
Galchenyuk, Kahun and Tanev don’t need to be Selke candidates. As long as their give-a-darn meters aren’t broken, the team should give up fewer goals.
The Penguins aren’t going anywhere fast:
• Rutherford has been an automatic transaction machine in the last calendar year, making no fewer than 12 trades involving 28 players and eight draft picks. Through all that, the team’s defense corps hasn’t changed since Game 4 of the Islanders series.
A renewed commitment to backchecking might help the defense return to its championship form, but it might not.
• For all of Kessel’s perceived faults, real and imagined, he had 27 goals and 82 points last season.
Galchenyuk, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Kessel to Arizona, had exactly half that point total last season. Kahun had 37 points as an NHL rookie. Tanev’s career high is 29 points.
The name of the game is still scoring goals, and the Penguins have hurt themselves in that department this summer.
• With Kessel running the show on the left half wall, the Penguins have finished fifth, first and third in the NHL in power-play efficiency the past three seasons.
Can Kris Letang move into that spot, start bombing one-timers and make sure the Penguins don’t skip a beat? Maybe, but maybe not.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .