After heading to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a longer summer than they are used to this year. It goes without saying that their second round exit to Montreal was a disappointment. However, what should be considered more of a disappointment was the team’s compete level – or lack thereof – throughout most of the season. The 2008-2009 Penguins had an outstanding end to the regular season. They came into the playoffs red hot and ended the year with Lord Stanley’s prize over their heads. The 2009-2010 Penguins seemed disinterested at times. There were fewer dramatic comebacks and powerful displays of talent, dedication and heart. They finished the season with a loss to Atlanta and an overtime victory over the New York Islanders. In the playoffs they struggled against the Senators and were outworked by the Habs.
General Manager Ray Shero spent big money on the Penguins’ defence this summer signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to long term deals. He also added more toughness in the form of Arron Asham and brought in Mr. Hilary Duff, Mike Comrie. Comrie should get a shot on one of the team’s top two lines.
The biggest loss for the Penguins comes from number 55. Sergei Gonchar took his booming slapshot and power play ability to the Ottawa Senators this summer, leaving the Penguins with some questions in the offensive defenceman role. Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold will be missing from the Penguins blue line as well. Bill Guerin, who enjoyed a decent amount of success alongside Sidney Crosby, was sent packing as were Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko, who enjoyed very little success alongside Evgeni Malkin. Their departures mean new linemates for both Crosby and Malkin.
As has been the case for the last several years, the Penguins’ offence will flow through their trio of talented centres: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Crosby scored a career high 51 goals last season to win the Rocket Richard Trophy (along with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning.) Evgeni Malkin had a poor year by his very high standards. He played only 67 games and recorded 77 points on the year. It’s expected that Jordan Staal will be moved up to play centre on the second line and that Malkin will make the shift to wing. Fedotenko and Ponikarovsky did not perform well with Malkin last season, so Staal is definitely an upgrade on the second line.
The Penguins wingers, as usual, will be somewhat lacking. Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy and newcomer Mike Comrie may not be first or second line material on many other teams, but on the Penguins they will make up the remainder of the top two lines.
The Penguins are stocked with aggressive, gritty players. In the offseason they added Asham to a lineup that is already home to Mike Rupp, Matt Cooke, Eric Godard, Craig Adams and others. The team will certainly not be short on grinders.
With Sergei Gonchar now in Canada’s capital, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski will need to provide additional offence from the blue line. The addition of Paul Martin will help in this area as well, particularly on the power play.
The Penguins’ defence was what won them the Stanley Cup in 2009 and what cost them the Cup in 2010. There has been a major overhaul on the blue line over the summer and the new look defence should be stronger – and younger – than last year’s lineup. Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski make up five of the team’s top six defencemen. The sixth man will more than likely be a player that spent the majority of last season with the WBS Penguins of the AHL. Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland are likely candidates for that role.
It seems as though, no matter what he accomplishes, Marc-Andre Fleury will forever be questioned by Penguins fans. The first overall pick in 2003, Fleury is at times brilliant and at other times… not so brilliant. He shows incredible athleticism, reaction time and skill, but still struggles with rebounds from time-to-time. He also appears to be somewhat emotionally fragile when things aren’t going right. The strengthened Penguins defensive corps will certainly help Fleury. Last season he was hung out to dry far too often and left scrambling to gather up loose pucks that should have been handled by his own team.
Brent Johnson returns to the Penguins again this year. He’s proven to be a very strong back-up goaltender who can step up and hold the fort when needed.
Best Case Scenario
The Penguins compete for the Stanley Cup once more. When you have players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your team, anything less is considered a disappointment. The Atlantic Division is one of the strongest in the league, so the Penguins will need to play hard, disciplined hockey in order to compete with teams like New Jersey and Philadelphia. The offseason additions of grit and defence show that the Pens are stocking up to compete with a very tough Atlantic Division.
Worst Case Scenario
Ray Shero’s moves in the offseason were the wrong ones, the team struggles from a lack of offensive depth and is once again overwhelmed in the playoffs. The calls to sign or trade for a marquee winger were strong over the offseason and Mike Comrie and Arron Asham likely do not fill that role. Some questioned Shero’s decision to add more grit up front rather than looking for a goal scoring winger.
A few weeks ago it looked like this would be the year Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey received their shots in the big league. The Asham and Comrie signings changed that. It doesn’t look like any prospects will be suiting up on the team’s offensive lines on opening night. On defence, Engelland and Lovejoy will likely see serious time in Pittsburgh this season. Simon Despres, the Pens’ 2009 first-round draft pick, looks impressive as well, but he will likely remain in junior for another season.
All Eyes On…
While the NHL, NBC and Gary Bettman continue to shove Sidney Crosby down the public’s collective throat, the key to the Penguins’ success is Evgeni Malkin. The year Malkin dominated was the year the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. That’s no surprise. It’s a lot more difficult for opposing teams to shut the Penguins down when both Crosby and Malkin are clicking.
Evgeni Malkin will need to get back into the form that won him the 2009 Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophies. He struggled through injuries and underperforming linemates last season, but will need to do better this year. Playing alongside Staal should definitely help. If Crosby and Malkin can both play at their highest levels this season the Penguins should be fine offensively and difficult to beat.
There’s no turning back now
This is what makes me
This is what I am
You can hate me now
but I won’t stop now
Cause I can’t stop now
you can hate me now
-Nas “Hate Me Now”