Around the NHL in 30 Days: Pittsburgh

It’s the day you’ve all been waiting for…my season preview for your Pittsburgh Penguins!

Three words will determine the Penguins fate this season: Sidney Crosby’s health. If Crosby can return to form, the Pens will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. If Sid misses significant time with post-concussion symptoms or – gasp! – gets re-injured, this could be another one-and-done playoff season.

There’s no doubt Evgeni Malkin’s and Jordan Staal’s health are also vital to Pittsburgh’s success, but let’s be honest – this is Crosby’s team. Without him last year, the Pens just couldn’t score. This proved to be a fatal flaw against Tampa in the playoffs.

Due to a lack of significant offseason activity, this is virtually the same exact team as last season. The Pens suffered minimal roster casualties while standing pat with its core. Whether this is a good or bad decision by managment remains to be seen. With goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and a solid blueline, the Pens have things covered defensively. Offensively, the team needs James Neal to, you know, score, and repeat 20-goal campaigns from Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy would sure help the cause. Let’s take a closer look at the 2011-12 Pens.

Key Subtractions

This man's health is sort of a big deal.

Max Talbot
Talbot was a fan favorite in the Burgh, and for good reason. He was an honest-to-goodness playoff hero, scoring twice in the decisive, Cup-clinching Game 7 against Detroit. There was also the quasi-legendary fight with Dan Carcillo that some say helped spark the Pens to a big playoff win in Philadelphia.

Talbot will be sorely missed on the PK, where he was perhaps at his best. Other than that, the Pens shouldn’t be hurt by his absence all that much. Talbot only had 21 points in 82 games last season, and his role as a pest is capably filled by Matt Cooke. I’d say I wish old #25 the best, but he had to go and sign with the Flyers – the last team any Pittsburgh fan wanted to see him on.

Mike Rupp
Rupp served the team well in his brief tenure in Pittsburgh. He was as solid a fourth-line wing you could have in the lineup, evidenced by his 17 points last season, and he never shied away from the rough stuff. That said, it wasn’t an option to re-sign him and a (hopefully) healthy Arron Asham can adequately replace him.

Key Additions

Steve Sullivan
Sullivan was really the only free-agent the Pens inked that is guaranteed to start the season with the team. A vet of nearly 900 NHL games, the tiny winger adds some skill to the top two lines. More importantly, Sullivan should (fingers crossed) help the Pens power play, which was awful last season without Crosby and Malkin. I’m not predicting 30 goals for the ex-Predator, but Sullivan should provide some much-needed offense.

Richard Park/Jason Williams/Steve MacIntyre
These three have two-way contracts, and I expect all three to make a few cross-state trips between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre this season. Park is the most intriguing player here because of his penalty-killing ability. If the Pens are looking for someone to replace Talbot on the PK, Park might be the guy. MacIntyre just might make the team as designated enforcer. There’s no doubting his skills in the pugilistic arts or his desire to protect his teammates. You hate to use up a roster spot for a goon, but it might be in the Pens’ best interests.

Forwards

With a healthy lineup, here’s how I see things:

Kunitz-Crosby-Neal
Sullivan-Malkin-Kennedy
Cooke-Staal-Dupuis
Adams-Asham

That leaves one opening. Park, MacIntyre, Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey, Eric Tangradi and Williams are all in the mix. This gives the Pens two solid scoring lines and a gritty checking line with some offensive ability. A fourth line anchored by Craig Adams is always going to be reliable. The key, besides health (not to beat a dead horse), is Neal, who struggled mightily after being acquired from Dallas last season. The man does have three 20-goal seasons (in three full NHL campaigns), so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. If he clicks with Crosby or Malkin, he could potentially hit the 30-goal mark. Here’s hoping Kennedy can build of his 21-goal season and that the third line can be effective, particularly the new (and improved?) version of Cooke.  

Another positive here is depth. The Pens have plenty of reliable pluggers in the minors (Ryan Craig, Nick Johnson, Joe Vitale) that have NHL experience and have proven to be capable at the big-league level. Significant injuries didn’t catch up to the team until the playoffs last season, mainly because of the play of the minor-league replacements.

Defense

No changes, and no surprises, here. Letang-Orpik; Michalek-Martin; Niskanen-Lovejoy-Engelland. The top four are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the league. Letang had a breakout season last year and is poised to improve upon it this year. Orpik, Michalek and Martin are what they are – very solid. I wasn’t overly impressed with Niskanen when he came over with Neal from Dallas, but he’s got pedigree as a former #1 pick. Lovejoy and Engelland will most likely rotate depending on who the Pens play. Both are more than capable sixth defensemen.

Goaltending

I see another 35-plus win season for MAF.

Fleury has established himself as a legit #1 goaltender. He was incredible last season after a terrible start. Unfortunately, he sputtered ever so slightly in the playoffs and was outplayed by senior citizen Dwayne Roloson. All that said, the Pens are lucky to have Fleury, who should win over 35 games for the fourth straight season. Brent Johnson gives the team a more-than-capable backup. Need proof? He went 13-5-3 with a 2.17 GAA last season and was awesome early on when Fleury struggled. 

Special Teams/Coaching

As previously discussed, the PP was not good last season. It has to improve this season…mainly because it can’t possibly get worse. Obviously, a healthy Crosby will aid the man advantage. Even without him, I expect the Pens power play to be an asset this season, not a hindrance. I have faith in the coaching staff to put together a system to fit the personnel. The PK, on the other hand, was very good last season, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good this season. After all, the Pens have almost the same exact personnel.

As far as coaching, Dan Bylsma is the league’s reigning coach of the year. It’s hard to find much to complain about here – he was able to get the most out of an oft-injured club last year, and he’s got that whole Stanley Cup thing on his resume.

Prediction

Even without Crosby in the lineup, this is a playoff team. With a healthy Crosby, the Pens should compete for the division title and a top-three seed in the conference. But it certainly isn’t going to be easy. The division should be stronger top-to-bottom this season. I expect New Jersey and the Islanders to be better than they were last year, and Philadelphia and the Rangers should be tough. Then there’s Washington…and the defending champs…and the team that beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year. Here’s the rub – after two consecutive premature playoff ousters, the pressure is on. Sure, the Pens won it all three seasons ago, but this core won’t be around forever. And with this core, and a championship, expectations are always sky high. It’s time for this team to make another run at the Cup. With health, it can be done.

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