Entering the 2009-10 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the team to beat in the East, if not the entire NHL.
One could throw out names like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury and listeners will concede the likelihood of championship favorite.
It’s a testament to the talent in Pittsburgh, if nothing else. But the reason why the Penguins should be considered the Beast of the East extends much further than some talented players–the champions haven’t missed a beat.
When a team wins a championship–in any sport–the subsequent off-season is too often a period of turmoil, despite the great temptation to indulge in a plethora of celebratory endeavors.
General managers have unrestricted free agents and salary caps to deal with. New players might come, but your championship-winning guys will likely go.
The Penguins are the exception. While Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill found homes in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively, the Penguins have managed to escape the threat of losing many integral championship pieces.
Veteran right wing Bill Guerin chose to sign on; as did Ruslan Fedotenko and Craig Adams. Meanwhile, rugged and versatile forward Mike Rupp and quintessential defensive defenseman Jay McKee have joined the Penguins. Also, Brent Johnson was brought on board to back up Fleury.
In other words, the Penguins have become a better team in the off-season–an accomplishment nearly impossible to imagine, considering the team just won a Stanley Cup.
So, how can they not be considered the team to beat?
Crazy things happen during a season. Players get injured. (G-d forbid). Players underachieve. (G-d forbid). Other teams exceed expectations, etc.
But predictions ought to be based on the recent past and the current makeup of a team. Based on that, the Penguins ought to be penciled in as the team waiting for a Western Conference contender.