2010-11 NHL season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

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Thumbnail image for crosbyandmalkinunder25.jpgLast season: (47-28-7, 101 points, 2nd in Atlantic Division, 4th in Eastern Conference) It’s a little bit much to expect an NHL team to make it to the Stanley Cup finals three seasons in a row, so the beauty of the Penguins’ 2009-10 campaign is in the eye of the beholder. Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury had some low moments, but the team fell just a few strides short of their first Atlantic Division title in the Sidney Crosby Era. It seemed like they just ran out of gas against the Montreal Canadiens, who beat them in an ugly Game 7.

Head coach: Dan Bylsma enters his third season as coach, although this will only be his second full campaign. No NHL coach has complete job security, but I’m guessing that his 2008-09 Stanley Cup ring will keep him off the hot seat for this season. His coaching skills will be put to the test in a tough Atlantic Division, featuring division champ New Jersey and Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia.

Key departures: D Sergei Gonchar, F Bill Guerin, F Ruslan Fedetenko, D Mark Eaton, F Alexei Ponikarovsky, D Jordan Leopold. People are underestimating the loss of Gonchar. The Penguins’ power play rarely operated on the level people expected from their collection of talent, but Gonchar was a key motor and logged huge minutes. Guerin and Fedetenko weren’t elite wingers, but the team’s now even weaker in that area.

Key arrivals: D Paul Martin, D Zbynek Michalek, F Mike Comrie, F Arron Asham, F Brett Sterling. GM Ray Shero threw down the gauntlet by spending big money on Martin and Michalek, two good defensemen whose best work often goes unnoticed. Comrie and Asham should be decent depth players while Sterling gets the chance to play the role of Petr Sykora. I don’t think he has the stuff to pull that off, though.

Thumbnail image for fleurybad.jpgUnder pressure: Marc-Andre Fleury needs to justify his $5 million salary while Malkin has a lot to prove after struggling with injuries (and maybe a little fatigue?) last season. They were two of the biggest reasons the Penguins won the Cup in ’09 because as they go, so goes the team.

Protecting the house: Unlike their cross-state rivals in Philly, the Penguins are making a huge investment in one goalie. Fleury’s a scapegoat often enough in Pittsburgh that it’s a go-to joke among beat writers, but the bottom line is that ‘MAF’ needs to improve his play this season. Backup Brent Johnson is a solid (but clear) No. 2.

They don’t have a Norris-worthy guy like Chris Pronger, but the Penguins are strong along the blueline … and with good reason, because they’ve certainly invested a lot of clams in that area. They have a headhunting hitter (Brooks Orpik), offensive flash (Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Ben “Dr.” Lovejoy) and steady all-around guys (Martin, Michalek). I wouldn’t rank them as the best in the league, but they might be the most versatile.

Top line we’d like to see: Malkin-Crosby-Chris Kunitz. Even in my imagination, I cannot put Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal on the same line. That hypothetical team would be too thin at center, after all. Instead, I’d have Kunitz doing all the forechecking and dirty work while Crosby and Malkin pick apart the defense with cruel efficiency.

You never know, that line might actually see the light of day on occasion, too.

Oh captain, my captain: I always picture Crosby as the type of guy who would yell at me for running at half-speed during wind sprints during football practice. While I hated that guy, I’d imagine that personality type works better for people who actually have athletic ability.

erichandsofgodard.jpgStreet fighting man: While Mike Rupp can take care of himself, it’s all about Eric ‘Hands of’ Godard. Those hands aren’t around to finish a Crosby/Malkin one-timer. Instead they exist to hurt people. Considering that other Atlantic Division teams loaded up on pugilists, Godard might need to hire another cook to prepare all of those knuckle sandwiches.

Best case scenario: Prized prospect Eric Tangradi turns out to be the second coming of Kevin Stevens and gives the Penguins a genuine power forward. Martin seamlessly replaces Gonchar’s power-play productivity while Michalek proves to be a heightened version of Rob Scuderi (with a little offensive punch). Crosby keeps scoring goals, Malkin stays healthy and racks up 100 points and Fleury plays like an elite goalie. Cut to the Penguins’ second Cup parade in three years.

Worst case scenario: The Penguins end up third in the division and eighth overall in the East, face off against their kryptonite (the Devils) and get booted out of the first round. Malkin and Crosby can’t get it done without quality wingers while Fleury allows a bonehead goal every three games. Martin and Michalek either underachieve or get injured. Bylsma gets food poisoning from a bad burrito.

Keeping it real: The Penguins are a team built for the playoffs rather than the regular season. Without Gonchar or proven scoring on the wings, they won’t score many “easy” goals. I see them coming in second in the Atlantic, sliding into their typical 4th or 5th seed and getting booted out of the conference finals by a deeper team like Washington, New Jersey or Philadelphia.

But, really, they could grind out another Cup win. They’re a rugged, deep and talented group but also have some disturbing weaknesses.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with a one being the worst and a five being the best, you have to think they’re a 5, right? When you’re that strong down the middle, have a defense that deep and employ a goalie who can stand on his head (when the lights are on, at least), it’s tough to discount that team’s chances. They have just as good a shot as any team in the East.

Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

***

It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

TAMPA, FL - MAY 18:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, Tyler Johnson was such a huge part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, more than a few people believed that he could ease the pain of possibly losing Steven Stamkos to free agency. He tied Stamkos for the team lead in scoring (72 points) and topped all Lightning players with 23 playoff points during their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2015-16 regular season was a bumpy one for Johnson … in some ways literally.

Painful year

Health was a major obstacle for Johnson, starting with the hangover from a wrist injury he suffered during Tampa Bay’s magic run.

Even afterward, there were moments of pain. Sometimes it came down to flat-out bad luck:

Other times, there were questionable hits:

It wasn’t until late in the regular season that Johnson seemed to feel himself, as he noted to the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“I feel I’ve got the speed back, got everything I can do,” Johnson said. “I’m actually mentally there, not worried about other things …”

Big commitments

He’ll have some things to worry about in 2016-17.

The Lightning handed out a ton of money this off-season, locking up Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lengthy deals. They still need to sort out a contract for Nikita Kucherov, a talented forward who rose while Johnson stumbled.

Fair or not, Johnson must prove that he’s a core member of the Lightning

He made a strong argument in his own favor once he was healthy, generating 17 points in 17 playoff games as the Lightning made it to within one game of another Stanley Cup Final appearance despite missing Stamkos.

Still, Johnson faces a fork in the road. Ben Bishop either needs a new deal or (most likely) a trade to a team that will make him “the guy.” Ondrej Palat likely won’t be the easiest player for Tampa Bay to re-sign, either.

Few players could gain or lose more money with one season of play than Tyler Johnson. He can prove that 2015-16 was derailed by bad luck or allow injury concerns to linger.

Millions are on the line, and those personal goals may very well help Johnson drive the Lightning to another deep run.

For all we know, he could also find himself driving out of town.