Last 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.
Under 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.
Street 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.