With August out of the way, we're merely days away from the start of Penguins training camp and only three weeks away from the Pens' first preseason game. With training camp a time for fringe players to stand out, veterans to work their way back into shape, and for the coaching staff to institute changes, below are a quartet of suggested tweaks that could serve the Penguins well in their new campaign.
1. Mark Letestu on the penalty kill. Letestu was a revelation during the 2010-11 season, playing a heady game in both the offensive and defensive zones with little fanfare and at a bargain-basement price. At different points throughout the season, Letestu could be seen playing on each of the Penguins' four lines, notably being promoted to the top line (with admittedly mixed results) after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were lost for the season with injuries.
Where Letestu's strength really lied, though, was as a heady third-line center, showing a knack for being positionally sound, utilizing sneaky-good stick work and avoiding bad penalties.
Last season, as I wrote about in May, the Penguins relied heavily on a five-forward rotation of Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams and Maxime Talbot to kill penalties, a small number of killers by NHL standards. With Talbot no longer a Penguin, Dan Bylsma will be required to promote at least one additional forward to that rotation. Letestu should be the top choice.
2). Expand Dustin Jeffrey's role. Jeffrey looked to be a revelation in limited play with the Penguins last year, breaking out with some impressive, timely scoring bursts in the NHL while dominating at the AHL level.
Jeffrey finished the season with 12 points in only 25 games played for the Penguins, and 40 in 45 for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. It's easy to imagine that Jeffrey's NHL numbers would've been higher had he not suffered a pair of injuries during the latter half of the season, including a season-ending ACL tear in March.
In Sidney Crosby's absence, Jeffrey looks to be the best option for a promotion to a role on a scoring line. What further helps Jeffrey's case is his ability to play effectively as both a center and as a wing, making him easier to slot on multiple lines.
While an ACL tear is a very serious injury and nothing to take lightly, it is also an injury with a favorable outlook for ice hockey players, as the sport requires very little in the way of planting and pivoting. When Jeffrey comes back, which should be during training camp, the affects of his injury should not be very noticeable and he could be primed to make an impact for the Penguins.
3). Some stability for Pascal Dupuis. One of Dupuis' strengths is that he is versatile enough to play on any line for the Penguins. Though not skilled enough to succeed on a scoring line, he has the speed to keep up with play and the intangibles and shot to provide some value.
But, if possible, it'd be nice to keep Dupuis anchored to the bottom two lines for the majority of the season, allowing him to maximize his effect as a role player and as a standout penalty killer. Meanwhile, younger skilled players like the aforementioned Jeffrey and Letestu, as well as Tyler Kennedy, Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson could be given an opportunity to battle for a spot on the top six.
Keeping Dupuis in a role fit for his abilities would serve the two-fold purpose of giving younger players a better chance to develop in an offensive capacity while allowing Dupuis to thrive in the roles that he is built to thrive in.
4). Make the team, and especially the power play, Evgeni Malkin's. Who knows when Crosby will return? Not I, nor the media, nor the Penguins, if they are to be believed. While Crosby is out, Malkin will be the man in all facets of the game: the Penguins' top skater, point-producer and all-around talent. It's time the Penguins schemed around Malkin's talents, both at even strength and on the man advantage.
In 2007-08, when Crosby missed much of the season with an injured ankle, Malkin stepped up to finish second in the NHL in scoring and third in power play points (one place behind Sergei Gonchar). The following year, Malkin lead the league in scoring and finished fourth in the league in power play points (Crosby finished fifth, one point behind him). Though they did benefit from Gonchar at the point, it is not beyond Malkin and this group of Penguins to score on the power play, and score often.
When Crosby returns from injury, he can ideally step into an already-working system similar to his return from injury when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Expectations will be high when Crosby returns, both from fans and the media, but the one place where they need to be as low and accepting as possible is within the organization. Making and keeping Malkin the focal point of the team would do that.