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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

No Kane, no problem for Panarin in Columbus

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After the trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Brandon Saad back to Chicago, many wondered if Panarin could produce at a high level without Patrick Kane. In hindsight, maybe there should have been just as many worries about how much Kane would lose in Panarin’s absence.*

Panarin, 26, really forced his strong debut season with the Blue Jackets during his last game. He generated a hat trick and an assist as the Blue Jackets won their ninth game in a row by beating the Rangers, giving him 15 points during that span.

To give you an idea of how hot Panarin has been, only Mikko Rantanen has more points (16) during the last nine games, while “The Bread Man” matches Nathan MacKinnon‘s 15 points. Panarin brings quite the streak into tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers, who have a ton on the line.

Overall, you can dice up Panarin’s 68 points in 74 games in some interesting ways. More directly, he’s currently tied with Jamie Benn and Patrik Laine for 25th place in points, just two behind Kane. Panarin scored 77 points as a rookie and 74 last season, so he’s clearly not wholly dependent upon number 88.

It also sounds like Panarin is presenting a positive influence on the Blue Jackets, who boast some interesting young scorers who could really push them to a higher level if they pan out.

Oliver Bjorkstrand stands as one of the most intriguing examples. He’s a guy who’s had a knack for scoring at other levels, yet it remains to be seen if he can be a difference-maker in the NHL. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline recently reported (sub required) that Panarin’s providing a strong example to Bjorkstrand, in particular.

“The Bread Man” stands to Bjorkstrand as a player who can get it done despite modest size.

“He’s obviously really talented, has a ton of skill. But it’s his work ethic, how hard he is on pucks,” Bjorkstrand said. “He wins almost every battle he’s in, a lot of times against guys that are a lot bigger than him. But he has the determination to come away with the puck.”

The numbers seem to back up that “strong on the puck” talk.

Panarin’s possession stats have actually improved with the Blue Jackets, with his numbers standing out even more relative to his teammates. While John Tortorella is still rolling him out in advantageous situations (65.2 percent of his shifts begin in the offensive zone), that’s a big drop from his 78.8 percent mark in Chicago.

So, in a way, Panarin is proving himself to be possibly even more valuable with Columbus, as he’s less of a specialist and more of a balanced driver of play.

Panarin is a few strides short of Hart Trophy talk, but he’s done about as much as anyone could reasonably ask to prove that he’s a legitimate top-line talent, and a key ingredient to a team that could be very dangerous in the playoffs.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

* – Much like before Panarin’s arrival, Kane is still a lethal scorer with 70 points in 74 games this season.

Still, he reached the apex of his career making magic with Panarin, as he collected 106 points in 2015-16 (a career-high) and 89 in 2016-17. Those rank as his two strongest regular seasons, with only 2009-10’s 88 points in the same range. Otherwise, his next highest point total was 73 points, although he’s on track to eclipse that this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBCSN Doubleheader: Capitals at Red Wings; Golden Knights at Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday night. In the early game, the Detroit Red Wings host the Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The Capitals have an opportunity to put a little distance between themselves and the second place Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. Washington is two points ahead of the Pens with a game in a hand, so a win tonight would put them four points clear of second.

The Caps got some good news, as Evgeny Kuznetsov (upper body) made the trip to Detroit. Kuznetsov suffered an upper-body injury against the Isles last week. Even though he’s traveling, it’s unclear if he’ll actually suit up tonight.

Since losing back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles, the Capitals have rattled off five victories in their last six contests. That includes a win in San Jose, a win over the Jets, a pair of wins over the Islanders and a victory over Dallas.

As for the Red Wings, they’ll look to play spoiler again. They’re 5-4 overtime win over the Flyers on Tuesday night allowed to snap their 10-game losing skid. Before Tuesday’s game, you had to go all the way back to Feb. 25 to find Detroit’s last victory. Yeah, it took them long enough.

Even though they aren’t in the playoff picture, there’s no denying the win felt good for the struggling Wings.

“We talked about it as a team after the last game, certainly frustration was starting to boil over,” coach Jeff Blashill said after the win over Philly, per the Detroit News. “Our guys came out and played great. The third period wasn’t good enough, but we played great for two periods (and) to finish was critical.

“You don’t want to come in here and talk about another loss. It was critical (to win).”

Blashill’s team currently find themselves in 26th place with 65 points. A few more losses down the stretch and they’ll be able to improve their NHL Entry Draft lottery odds.

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Vegas Golden Knights at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The Golden Knights are still at least eight points clear of any other team in the Pacific Division, but there’s no denying that their play has dipped. Of course, that was to be expected. Not because they’re an expansion team, but because every team in the league takes a dip at a certain point over an 82-game season.

In fairness to Vegas, they have won back-to-back games over Calgary and Vancouver, but injuries have been problematic for them of late. Now, it looks like they’ll have to deal with another injury, as Marc-Andre Fleury. As you’ll probably remember, they faced a pretty tough test earlier in the season when Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk were all hurt.

Head coach Gerard Gallant was pretty on Wednesday when he was asked about Fleury’s status.

“I’m not getting into specifics about what he’s doing, but he’s not going to come today,” Gallant said, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He could join us tomorrow or in the very near future.

“He’s not coming on our plane today. He could be there tomorrow. He could be there the next day. I’m not sure.”

Since then, they recalled Dansk from the minors. So don’t expect to see Fleury in San Jose.

The Sharks are eight points behind Vegas for that top seed in the division. Both teams have played 73 games, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to catch the expansion side with only nine games remaining. Winning tonight would obviously make that a little more possible.

Since dropping a 2-0 home decision to the Caps, the Sharks have rattled off five straight wins.

“You always find out what the group’s made of when they’re pushed up against the wall,” head coach Pete DeBoer said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “We were in a group, a couple weeks ago, of five or six teams that were all pretty much in the same spot and we’ve found a way to separate ourselves.”

San Jose has certainly separated themselves from the pack, as they’re three points ahead of Anaheim (third place) with a game a hand.

It’ll be interesting to see how they handle themselves against the number two team in the conference.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for ‘Hawks and Quenneville to split?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Erik Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, issued a statement on Wednesday after they lost their unborn child earlier in the week. “At this extremely difficult time, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do know one day we’ll get there.” (Ottawa Citizen)

• It’s been a tough year for the Blackhawks, so is it time for the team and Joel Quenneville to part ways? (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Golden Knights have battled goalie injuries earlier this season and they’ll have to do that again because Marc-Andre Fleury is hurt again. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• Do we put too much emphasis on a potential Hart Trophy winner being on a team that makes the playoffs? Faceoffcircle.ca argues that Connor McDavid deserves to be in the MVP race. (Faceoff Circle)

• Speaking of the Hart Trophy, Nathan MacKinnon is one of the favorites to win the award, but Mikko Rantanen might hurt his chances of taking it home. (Mile High Hockey)

• A Journal of Neurotrauma study showed that 64 percent of the 309 players that went through the NHL’s concussion protocol between 2008-09 and 2016-17 didn’t play in the league three full seasons later. (TSN.ca)

• Since the Ian Cole trade happened, the Penguins penalty kill has been in trouble. (Pensburgh.com)

• Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes is crazy about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Believe it or not, former Bolt Ryan Malone is the reason he became such a huge fan. (Tampa Times)

• The Washington Capitals need to make sure Evgeny Kuznetsov is healthy for the start of the playoffs. Without him, their depth at center takes a significant hit. (Fan Rag Sports)

• The Markham Thunder and Kunlun Red Star will meet in the Clarkson Cup final. The Victory Press has a full preview of the series. (The Victory Press)

• Team USA’s Monique Lamoureux-Morando has been hired to be an analyst on NHL Network. (Grand Forks Herald)

Steven Stamkos was fined $5,000 for tripping Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly on Tuesday night. (NHL.com)

• The South Korean hockey team admits that they miss playing on the same team as North Koreans. The South Koreans are currently playing in a tournament and they have a few injuries to deal with. (NBC Olympics)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. By the way, Ryan Donato scored again.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Schwartz the hero, Gibson blanks Flames, Bruins clinch

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Players of the Night:

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues: The Blues needed a win on Wednesday. They’ll need a few more still if they’re to push for the playoffs, but Schwartz scored a third-period equalizer and then the overtime winner 30 seconds into the extra frame to keep pace with the Anaheim Ducks (who won) for the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson posted his third shutout in his past seven starts — and fourth of the season — saving all 29 shots that came his way in a 4-0 triumph of the Calgary Flames.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: Malkin continued his pursuit of the Hart Trophy, netting a goal and adding an assist for his 41st goal (three back of Alex Ovechkin) and 91st point (three back of Nikita Kucherov).

Highlights of the Night:

Sidney Crosby did a thing – a very nice thing:

Jaden Schwartz, end-to-end to end the game:


Factoids of the Night:


Penguins 5, Canadiens 3

Coyotes 4, Buffalo 1

Blues 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

Ducks 4, Flames 0

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck