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.

Jaromir Jagr’s open to many things, but not retirement or a tryout

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Yes, Jaromir Jagr is 45-years-old. He’ll turn 46 in February.

So, yes, even for a fitness freak like Jagr, it’s likely that he’d probably not be the best fit for a team that plays at a frenetic pace. To get the most out of the living legend, a team would have to provide a nurturing environment. There are also questions about what sort of role he’d accept and how much money he’d settle for.

Even with all of those disclaimers under consideration, it’s maddening that we’re in late September and Jagr continues to put out semi-sarcastic cry for help videos.

So, what’s the latest on Jagr, then?

Well, to some extent, it’s useful to consider the process of elimination.

Sports-Express’ Igor Eronko reports that Jagr is open-minded about the KHL, though the NHL is first choice. Jagr acknowledged that participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics would be a draw in the process.

One thing he isn’t open to: a PTO with an NHL team.

While there’s actually some logic to a tryout – teams might want to see how well he can move/what kind of immediate chemistry Jagr could find – it does seem a little … demeaning to a first-ballot Hall of Famer who, frankly, is still producing solid numbers.

Eronko reports that Jagr said he’s talking to three-to-four teams, while Pierre LeBrun reports that two-to-three NHL teams are speaking with Jagr’s reps in the latest edition of TSN’s Insider Trading.

(Hey, both could be correct if Jagr’s including KHL suitors in his estimate.)

LeBrun also notes the idea Jagr is ruling out, beyond a PTO: retirement.

Jagr doesn’t want to hang up his skates, even if it means not playing in the NHL, which would bum out a slew of hockey fans (raises hand).

Naturally, there are creative “have your cake and eat it too” scenarios. Perhaps Jagr could sign a KHL contract with an NHL out clause of some kind, playing in the 2018 Winter Olympics, and then ink a deal with a contender who a) he wants to play for and b) is now convinced he still “has it?”

There are plenty of possibilities, and many of them are fun to think about.

Jagr needing to try out for a team – or worse, retire – is not so fun to think about.

Flyers experiment with Claude Giroux at LW, Sean Couturier as his center

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Last season, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier were on the ice at the same time during even-strength situations for just a bit more than five minutes. Depending upon how a Philadelphia Flyers’ pre-season experiment goes, they could line up together a whole lot more often.

Of course, if you missed this post’s headline, you might be asking: “But how? They’re both centers.”

Well, under this experiment, Giroux would move to left wing, Couturier would play center, and Jakub Voracek would assume his familiar role at RW.

Giroux came into the NHL primarily as a right-winger before moving to center, so he’s clearly versatile enough to theoretically work out on a wing. It also might allow the Flyers to try to duplicate some of their mad science from the power play to even-strength, as that’s often the role he finds himself in on that locomotive of a man-advantage unit.

As Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post reports, Giroux doesn’t seem against it, really.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” Giroux said. “It’s not like I’m against it or I’m not happy with it. If it makes the team better, we have a lot of centermen and I’m up for it for sure.”

Giroux is right. The Flyers have a glut of pivots, especially if head coach Dave Hakstol views additions Nolan Patrick and Jori Lehtera (or fairly recent addition Valtteri Filppula) as better fits down the middle.

NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer reports that Hakstol is impressed by Giroux’s willingness to move around as need be.

“When your captain is as selfless as ‘G’ is, he [goes] all in,” Hakstol said. “Whatever the role is, he’s going to attack it… It’s early, but he’s had a very high-level camp.”

Giroux’s been, at times, a bit more dependent on the PP to get his numbers. In 2016-17, five of his 14 goals and 26 of his assists (31 of 58 points) came on the power play.

Perhaps Couturier could do the “dirty work” associated with a center while two gifted wingers exploit their chemistry and get to have the fun? It’s the sort of hypothesis that can make sense in a hockey laboratory, and it would be entertaining to see if it works out in reality.

Assuming such a scientific method even makes it to October.

Brad Marchand: NHL crackdown on face-off cheating is ‘absolute joke’

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Earlier today, PHT’s own Cam Tucker discussed the early returns on the NHL’s plan to increase penalties for slashing and to cut down on cheating during face-offs.

(The video above this post’s headline provides a helpful primer on how officials plan on policing draws.)

So far, the face-off tweaks have one especially vocal critic in Boston Bruins agitator-star Brad Marchand, as CSNNE.com’s Joe Haggerty reports.

“The slashing [penalties] is one thing, but this face-off rule is an absolute joke. That’s how you ruin the game of hockey by putting that in there. They’re going to have to do something about that because we can’t play all year like that,” Marchand said. “Basically you have to be a statue. You can’t move. It takes away from the center iceman. I think there was even a play [in the game I was watching] last night where a penalty was called on a 4-on-4 before play on the first penalty had even started because of a draw.”

Gotta love the line “Basically you have to be a statue.”

Edmonton Oilers center Mark Letestu backed up Marchand in the “we can’t play all year like that” stance, asserting that he doubts a penalty like that would get whistled during a high-stakes game, as Sportsnet noted.

Here’s another perspective, via Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan.

Now, the new face-off rule might not have that huge of a direct impact on Marchand’s daily hockey life.

In 2016-17, Marchand went 13-23 in the dot.

It may, however, affect his fantastic center, Patrice Bergeron. The dynamic two-way center has been one of the best volume winners of draws over the years. Smarts, strength, studying tape and other factors go into winning as many as 60-percent of one’s face-offs, yet Bergeron and other top centers know how to “bend the rules,” too.

As much as analytics-minded people grumble about excessive attention being paid to face-offs, they’re events that can set up rare opportunities for set plays and other advantageous moments.

One can imagine that Marchand wouldn’t be pumped about the idea that, maybe, Bergeron’s dominance in the circle could be blunted, even ever-so-slightly or briefly.

Naturally, potential self-interest doesn’t disqualify Marchand and others from being correct.

At the same time, this is the pre-season, an opportunity for the NHL to work out its own kinks, which in this case means trying to manage rule tweaks while not disrupting the flow of games. Marchand is merely the loudest to say that … it sounds like the league might have some work to do.

Despite cancer diagnosis, Devils’ Brian Boyle doesn’t want to miss games

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New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle shared frightening news on Tuesday, yet he’s showing resounding courage and optimism in also plotting his “plan of attack.”

Boye, 32, announced that he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia on Tuesday.

Chronic myeloid luekemia (or CML) is a type of bone marrow cancer. Here’s an explanation of the disease via the American Cancer Society:

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), also known as chronic myelogenous leukemia, is a type of cancer that starts in certain blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. In CML, a genetic change takes place in an early (immature) version of myeloid cells – the cells that make red blood cells, platelets, and most types of white blood cells (except lymphocytes). This change forms an abnormal gene called BCR-ABL, which turns the cell into a CML cell. The leukemia cells grow and divide, building up in the bone marrow and spilling over into the blood. In time, the cells can also settle in other parts of the body, including the spleen. CML is a fairly slow growing leukemia, but it can also change into a fast-growing acute leukemia that is hard to treat.

Despite that scary news, Boyle is very positive about his chances; in fact, he hopes to live a “normal life,” right down to playing in the Devils’ season-opener on Oct. 7.

Back in 2014, Boyle discussed his father’s battle with cancer to ESPN. It’s quite an inspiring read.

We’ve seen multiple instances of hockey players showing resilience while fighting cancer during the active career. Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu stand as some of the most memorable examples, while Phil Kessel also comes to mind.

Jason Blake bounced back from CML, specifically:

The number one thing isn’t playing hockey, of course. It’s most important that Boyle emphasizes his overall health, even if that means taking some time off.

The Devils seem to be very supportive of Boyle as his fight begins. Here’s hoping he wins this one.