Defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. How does that sound? Well if you are the city of Pittsburgh it sounded pretty good this summer but the 2008-09 season is over and it is time to focus on defending your title. Now the Pens are looking to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Unlike his Detroit counterpart, Penguins GM Ray Shero managed to keep his core group largely intact. The biggest adjustment the Pens might face is having coach Dan Bylsma in the locker room for an entire season.
The questions that require answering by the Pens as this upcoming season is about to get underway are the following, namely; 1) Do Crosby & Malkin have enough of a supporting cast to excel? 2) With all that talent, can they re-gain their top 5 power play unit? and finally 3) Can the improvements by their Atlantic Division competition, knock them from the top, prevent them from making the Stanley Cup Finals for the third year in a row and winning it again? (what a way to say goodbye to Mellon Arena).
The success of those early Islander and Oiler dynasties was that the core group remained the same, just adding minor pieces along the way. In that same mold, the Pens have ten of their eleven top scoring forwards returning this season. The only player lost was Peter Sykora who signed with the Wild.
But truly this team begins and ends with the best group of centers currently playing in the National Hockey League.
Love him or hate him, you cannot diminish Crosby’s skill and ability to make players around him better. While I’m not one to give him the Gretzky mantle just yet, he does have a similarity in that he can make average players look like 50 goal scorers.
Here is a player not resting on his laurels. He continues to be introspective and look at what he has done in the past and how he can improve on it in the future, although this has been tougher as a result of all the hockey the Pens have played over the past two seasons. As he told Sportsnet.ca:
I usually try to work on things in the summer, trying to bring new elements to my game, but because of the way the past two summers have gone, I really have only been able to get back to square one,”.
Despite recently being named the number one player on Mike Brophy’s controversial top fifty list, Crosby knows that in order for him to build upon last season’s success he will need to surpass his already lofty achievements.
The Messier to Crosby’s Gretzky is Art Ross and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin whose maturation as a complete player really was appreciated by the team last season. Not only has he said all the right things, but he continues to lead by example on the ice. This guy is a monster and should dominate the scoring charts for years to come.
The third and final member of the Penguins trio of star centers is Thunder Bay, Ontario native Jordan Staal. This kid is the real deal. I don’t think there is a more dangerous Penguins player on the penalty kill than him. An excellent two way player, who on any other team would have way more opportunities to get points, but he plays his role extremely well.
On either side of Crosby will likely be Chris Kunitz, who came over from Anaheim and was almost a point per game player in his 20 games (7 goals, 11 assists) with the Pens last season as well as veteran Bill Guerin, who despite his “advanced age” of 39 (oldest player on team, same age as head coach Bylsma) still has the ability to score.
Malkin and Fedotenko seemed to develop some chemistry last season so they will likely play together with Tyler Kennedy who has wheels, a touch of scoring flair and has seemed to impress his coach;
“He’s been an outstanding player in camp. Really, really working hard. Tenacious. A lot of the days, he’s distinguished himself.”
Game 7 hero Max Talbot shoulder injury will keep him from the line-up until November. Although not exactly an offensive dynamo he does average 10-12 goals per season.
Matt Cooke brings energy and grit while Pascal Dupuis has o.k. hands and should fill out the third line with Staal.
Mike Rupp is big (6-5, 230-pound winger) and has already won a Stanley Cup (with the Devils). Craig Adams is solid but unspectacular. Eric Godard, known for his pugalism, should fill out the 4th line for the Pens.
Paul Bissonnette, Chris Conner, Ryan Bayda are competing for the 13th/14th job of sitting in the press box and eating old popcorn.
On Wednesday, the Penguins assigned a number of players to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. They were forwards Wade Brookbank, Luca Caputi, Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson, Konstantin Pushkarev, Wyatt Smith, Eric Tangradi, Joe Vitale and Tim Wallace.
The final cuts will be made September 30th and at that time we will know what the final roster will look like.
The most significant departures felt by the Penguins was on defence as they lost their shut down pair of defencemen. Rob Scuderi left for L.A. and Hal Gill departed for Montreal. Scuderi was the team leader with a plus-23 and had a career-high 16 points in 81 regular-season games. He also led the Pens in blocked shots with 164. The other end of that duo was 6’7″ 250 lbs Hal Gill, who managed to use that wingspan to shut down the opposing team’s forwards.
With the exception of 35 year old Sergei Gonchar, who was limited to 25 games last season, this core isn’t overly gifted offensively. Once again Gonchar, the free agent at the end of the season, will be called on to quarterback the team’s powerplay unit. If he stays healthy, then I think the Pens powerplay can expect to rise from the paltry 17.2%, good for 21st overall last season. When Gonchar played 78 games in 2007-08 the Pens power play was 4th overall at 20.4%.
Behind Gonchar expect the lion’s share of offensive expectations to fall on the shoulders of Kris Letang who was 8th on the team overall in points. With the departure of Ryan Whitney last season, Letang’s points underwent a noticeable increase (14 points in 19 games) as he took on Whitney’s ice time and power play responsibilities.
The man who blocked the most shots in 2006, Jay McKee, is looking to rebound with the Pens after a disappointing season with St. Louis last year.
As long as his knee’s (which limited him to 35/36 game in 2006/2007) hold up, Mark Eaton is being touted as Rob Scuderi’s defensive replacement.
Former Golden Gopher product Alex Goligoski should finally get a full NHL season this year after spending the past two season splitting time between the Pittsbugh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The competition seems to be for the 7th spot between Ben Lovejoy and local boy Nate “I love Philadelphia despite growing up in Pittsburgh” Guenin. Lovejoy appears to be more offensivelly talented whereas Guenin is seen to posess more grit. Coach Bylsma had this to say about Guenin from their AHL days (last season);
He’s a gritty, defensive defenseman, tough to play against, and a good (penalty-kill) guy. We had to adjust our (power play) against him last year. He gave our top lines tough times on the ice. He really was one of their guys that gave us fits, so that’s what king of game he can show.
Defensemen Robert Bortuzzo, Jonathan D’Aversa and Chris Lee were sent down to the minors on Wednesday.
It appears that despite the loss of Gill and Scuderi, the Pens haven’t really missed a beat on the back end.
Amazing the difference a year can make. At the end of the 2007-08 season many hockey fans were wondering if Marc-Andre Fleury could be a big time tender who was able to make the critical saves when called on. When he let slip the Zetterberg goal in Game 6 of the 2007-08 Stanley Cup Finals, which put the Wings ahead for good, many questioned his ability to win the big game. One year later, in Game 7 he showed that he was more than capable of making the big save, as his desperation jump which stopped Nicklas Lidstrom from tying the game, preserved the Penguins lead, and gave them their first championship since 1991-92.
Clearly even Fleury feels that he has proven himself to his doubters but more importantly to his teammates:
I think I’ve heard people say that I proved them wrong a little bit, so I’m proud of that,” said Fleury. To me, I don’t pay too much attention to what’s said, as long as I play my best and get my teammates’ respect, I’ll be happy.
The level of confidence a Stanley Cup victory has brought the young (24 years old) tender is astronomical. It is one thing to say you know you can win, it is another to have your name etched upon the Cup.
His numbers from last season weren’t particularly strong; a 2.67 GAA (23rd) and a .912 save % (21st) but former goaltender turned longtime Penguins scout turned goaltending coach Gilles Meloche has spent the last four years working on Fleury’s game and said;
He works hard and he’s improving all the time. It was just a matter of getting the maturity and the experience. Two years in a row he is in the Stanley Cup final, so he has to be doing something right. He’s a great kid andeagerto learn. He’s just a charm to work with.
As long as his ankle doesn’t give him problems, you can safely bet on Fleury winning 35-40 games for the Pens next season.
In case Fleury was to falter, his back-up will be Washington castaway, Brent Johnson who was seen as expendable with the emergence of Simeon Varlamov. He is a serviceable netminder (although he didn’t make the Hockey News recent top 10 backup’s list) who will likely see 15-20 games for the Pens. Last season he appeared in 21 games with the Capitals, going 12-6-2 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
Finally Boston University’s John Curry who signed with the Pens as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and took the team’s AHL affiliate to the Calder Cup Finals rounds out the Pittsburgh goaltending trio. The former Hobey Baker finalist gives the Pens a decent option should the need arise.
Class of Competition:
Which leads us to the final question for the Penguins this season; Can the improvements by their Atlantic Division competition, prevent them from rising up?
New Jersey Devils – The Devils can finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference if they get secondary scoring from their younger players and Marty B. stays healthy all year.
Philadelphia Flyers– This is now the team that is being discussed as a possible Stanley Cup contender this season. Having added an all-star in Pronger to solidify the defence and a goalie with a chip on his shoulder in Emery, the Flyers are only looking up.
New York Rangers– This is a team nobody really talks about until the playoffs roll around. The biggest question is will Henrik Lundqvist get the support that he needs? Bit of a wild card team but with the mix of experience and youth and with such a solid tender, you have to think they will be in the mix.
New York Islanders – While the Islanders have certainly improved, they just haven’t got enough tools to finish any better than 5th in the Atlantic division. While I realize that a ceiling is to project if everything goes right, I still don’t see these young Islanders winning more than 30 games next season.
Ceiling – This team has the tools to repeat and while I won’t predict a Stanely Cup championship, this team could easily return the Stanely Cup Finals and win. 1st in the Atlantic, 1st or 2nd in the Eastern Conference.
Floor – Too much talent on this team to fall too quickly although injuries could halt them on their march to return to the cup. 3rd in the Atlantic, 5th in the Eastern Conference.
Penguins Blogger Thoughts:
In addition to the above analysis I thought it would be a good idea to get a quick thought from Penguin bloggers. These guys follow Pittsburgh through the ups and downs of each season, so who better to get a quick hit from them then?
Most importantly, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lots of young talent waiting to get their chance to be a star. Look for young defensemen Alex Goligoski and Ben Lovejoyto make an impact for some or all of the season. Withthe core forwards all 23 or younger, the Penguins are already loaded withyoung talent with their best years still ahead of them. Add to that guys like Eric Tangradi and Luca Caputiwho will spend some time in the NHL this season, and it is a great problem having too much young talent.
Hooks from PensBurgh said:
For the Penguins, it’s really going to be more of the same from last year. They only lost three contributors from the Stanley Cup team (Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi and Petr Sykora). GM Ray Shero did well to re-sign guys like Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko to keep the core of the team intact for one more season.