2011-2012 season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

2010-2011 record: 49-25-8, 106 points; 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Tampa Bay 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

After a season that saw too little from their biggest stars and a collapse in the first round of the playoffs, the Penguins are back with a vengeance. They showed they can win without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and while Malkin is back and Crosby is getting closer to returning, they’ll be even more dangerous than ever.

Offense

We hate to judge guys by how they did in the preseason, but if how Malkin played in the preseason is an indication of how he’s going to play this season, then the Penguins really don’t need to rush Crosby back. Malkin looks healthy for the first time in over a year and that makes him one of the most dangerous guys on the ice. If you throw Crosby in there, all the offense the Pens lacked late last season is back in force. Adding Steve Sullivan will help out a bit. They’ll need more from James Neal though.

What the Penguins get from guys like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis is fine as long as Malkin is there to carry the load to start. Getting another 20-plus goal season from Tyler Kennedy would help and another solid season from Mark Letestu would go a long way to achieving balance in Pittsburgh. Oh, yeah, Jordan Staal is still pretty good at hockey, too, and if he gets to run with Malkin when Crosby returns, that makes the Pens all the more dangerous.

Defense

The defense is still as solid as ever and learning how to defend staunchly when Malkin and Crosby were out helped make them very difficult to beat. Kris Letang is a full-fledged offensive stud while Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen help bring some offense to the blue line as well. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are defensive studs. Ben Lovejoy should end up the sixth starter. This year’s first-round pick Joe Morrow gave the Penguins a lot to think about in training camp. He could be worth getting a nine game regular-season look before the Pens decide whether or not to send him back to juniors.

Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury finally silenced the rest of his critics with how strong he played last season. While he had a bumpy first month, he settled in and turned out to be one of the best in the league. He was poised and strong and helped keep the Pens rolling along without their star forwards. Brent Johnson was again a more-than solid backup and proved to be the most effective enforcer on the roster. Just ask Rick DiPietro.

Coach

Dan Bylsma is one of the best in the business and took home the Jack Adams Award as top coach. The way he helped keep the Penguins calm, cool, and collected in the face of disaster and through a myriad of injuries last seaosn was nothing short of miraculous. Finishing tied for first in the Atlantic and nearly overtaking the Flyers was a work of art. We’re pretty sure that if there’s a zombie apocalypse we want Bylsma to be the guy to lead us through the undead masses.

Breakout candidate

If Morrow sticks around he’s the pick here. We’re going to hedge our bets on that and say that a healthy, full season from Mark Letestu will be just the thing the Penguins need to get supportive offense from their other lines. In 64 games last season, the center had 14 goals and 13 assists. Cracking 20 goals should be his goal this season.

Best-case scenario

Malkin has an MVP-worthy season and shows why he is, indeed, one of the best players in the league all over again. Crosby comes back and has no further concussion issues and resumes the dominating play he had last season while Staal continues to be his solid self and Letang continues his huge offensive rise. Matt Cooke gets his act together and only gets press for being a solid defensive forward and penalty-killing maven. The Pens’ defense plays solid and nasty while Fleury shows his play from last season is how he’s going to be the rest of the way in leading the Penguins into the Stanley Cup finals.

Reality

The Penguins were already going to be a dangerously good team as it was. Bylsma’s expertise leading a team that plays non-stop aggressive hockey each game makes them a good team. Getting Malkin back as a Russian-powered super machine will make them great. If/when Crosby returns and has no follow-up issues with his health, this team is a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite. Getting that massive amount of offense back in the lineup after learning how to become defensively stingy makes them one of the best in the East, if not the NHL.

Hagelin making ‘significant steps’ in returning to Pens lineup

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It’s been nearly six weeks since Carl Hagelin last suited up for the Penguins.

His return sounds like it’s on the horizon.

Hagelin, out since Mar. 10 with a lower-body injury, was deemed “close” to coming back by Pens head coach Mike Sullivan, just ahead of tonight’s Game 1 against Washington.

“[Hagelin] is a day-to-day decision at this point,” Sullivan said. “He took limited contact this morning. The next step, obviously, will be the full contact approach.

“He is certainly making significant steps in the right direction here.”

The speedy Swede missed the final 16 games of the regular season with his ailment, and all five games in Pittsburgh’s opening-round win against the Blue Jackets. The end result was just six goals and 22 points in 61 games played, down from the impressive stretch he had last season after being acquired from Anaheim.

Pittsburgh is hopeful the 28-year-old can rejoin the team, and provide similar production as last year’s playoff run. Hagelin had six goals and 16 points in 24 games en route to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Hagelin isn’t the only veteran forward that could make his return this season. Earlier this week, the Pens announced winger Chris Kunitz had been cleared for contact, and is available for the Washington series.

Sweeney shares offseason plans for Bruins

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The Boston Bruins had a relatively successful season, getting back to the playoffs after narrowly missing them the past two years.

But another interesting summer awaits GM Don Sweeney, who has a number of areas he’d like to improve.

From CSN New England:

Sweeney listed the “middle of the [forward] lineup, transition-minded defensemen and the backup goaltender position” as places he had in mind for offseason upgrades. Those were glaring areas of need throughout the regular season and postseason. 

More specifically on Sweeney’s to-do list: a left wing to be paired with David Krejci, a revamping of a third line that underachieved far too often and another top-four defenseman capable of moving the puck to go along with a more dependable backup goaltender situation than the Jekyll and Hyde performance from Anton Khudobin last season.

Boston’s pending unrestricted free agents include Drew Stafford, Dominic Moore, and John-Michael Liles, the latter of whom turns 37 in November.

At some point, the Bruins will need to find a replacement for 40-year-old Zdeno Chara. But the NHL’s oldest defenseman still has one year left on his contract, and he says he’d like to play beyond that.

To start next season, the Bruins could go with a top four of Chara, Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo, and Charlie McAvoy, two lefties and two righties. Assuming they don’t re-sign Liles, adding another left shot for the bottom pairing seems an attainable goal for Sweeney. Adding another top-four d-man could be tough, though.

Another situation to watch is the one with Ryan Spooner, the 25-year-old forward who found his way into Bruce Cassidy’s doghouse in the playoffs. Spooner is a pending RFA and arbitration eligible. He can be good offensively, but without the puck he’s still tough to trust.

Sweeney did not share his plan for Spooner with reporters, but it’s safe to say the player’s future with the Bruins is uncertain.

Panthers looking for ‘modern day guy’ as next head coach

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There are just two coaching vacancies left — in Buffalo and Florida, respectively — and on Thursday, Panthers GM Dale Tallon outlined what the club is looking for in its next bench boss.

“We’re looking for a modern day guy, a good communicator and a good teacher,” Tallon said, per WQAM radio. “Someone who is firm, but fair and can think outside the box a little bit, because creativity is important too as far as how you differentiate yourself from other teams playing a similar system.”

To that end, the Panthers have already interviewed one candidate — University of Denver’s Jim Montgomery. Sportsnet reported Florida spoke with him on Monday.

Montgomery, 47, has spent the last three years at Denver, building one of college hockey’s most elite programs. This year’s squad was anchored by Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, U.S. junior shootout hero Troy Terry and, perhaps most interestingly, freshman scoring sensation Henrik Borgstrom — Florida’s first-round pick at last year’s draft.

Montgomery aside, Tallon and the Panthers sound like they’re casting a wide net to find Tom Rowe’s replacement.

The club reportedly reached out to Vancouver with interest in former bench boss Willie Desjardins. The Miami Herald floated the possibility of bringing in ex-Habs coach Michel Therrien, who resides in South Florida. Montreal radio station 91.9 Sports also connected Therrien to the gig.

Put it all together, and the coaching decision doesn’t appear to be a rush job. Tallon all but cemented that last month, when he said there “are some candidates that are in the playoffs that we can’t talk to,” adding he might wait “until at least mid-June” to make a hire.

Stars re-sign Janmark, who they ‘missed as much as anyone last season’

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Mattias Janmark, the Stars forward that missed all of this season with a major knee injury, has been given a one-year, $700,000 extension, the club announced on Thursday.

“Mattias is a played that we missed as much as anyone last season with the unfortunate injury he suffered,” Dallas GM Jim Nill said in a release. “We look forward to him returning to our group and getting him back for training camp.”

Losing Janmark’s services this year was, as mentioned, a fairly big blow. After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp in ’15-16 — a “great story,” according to Nill — Janmark had a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news all but alleviates concerns the 24-year-old’s knee problems might extend into next season, something former head coach Lindy Ruff alluded to last month.

“I think there’s a question mark (about next season), but we don’t know to what degree yet,” Ruff said, per the Dallas Morning-News. “He’s progressing nicely. He still has a ways to go, but I think the fact he is practicing now and has gone this far always gives a guy like that a better chance for next year.”

Janmark’s original injury occurred during the preseason, when he knee locked up in a game against Colorado.

“He had a small segment, approximately 21 millimeters by 11 millimeters, that became displaced and is locked in his knee,” Nill said at the time. “It’s the bone and the cartilage, they both came off together.”

Janmark underwent surgery to correct the issue, but his recovery was plagued by a preexisting congenital condition called osteochondritis dissecans. Nill said the likelihood of a full recovery was 80 percent.