Thursday, September 30, 2010
2010-11 Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
2010-11 Prediction 2nd Eastern Conference
Pens fans are quite fortunate. Many would kill to have a team of this quality to follow as their own. For those of us lucky enough to live in Pittsburgh, we can also count the striking Consol Energy Center and hosting the Winter Classic as reasons we will wake up this fall and winter. With all the excitement comes a new slogan: "Destiny Has a New Home". The upside of such a slogan is that the organization is acknowledging and embracing the high expectations that surround this team. I would contend that the downside of such a slogan is that it is a bit presumptuous. When I was just a fat middle school kid, the Penguins did for me what the Pirates and Steelers of the time could not do, and would not do for quite some time (still waiting on you Bucs). Simply put, they did not break my heart. Mario Lemieux and company raised the Cup twice on the road. Many speculated that a dynasty was inevitable and that the only question was how many Cups they would finish with. History shows that there was quite a delay until the 3rd one was captured. Nobody was left on the ice from the first run. While the players on those early 90s teams shouldn't hang their heads, "destiny" passed them by. Anybody that understands hockey would objectively have conceded that it was only a matter of time until C Sidney Crosby won a Stanley Cup (the same feeling I have about Ovechkin, but I'll discuss that in the Caps preview). The core of players around Sid is certainly a talented one, but destiny will not carry this team to another championship...hard work and team play will.
Free Agency has taken a toll on the team the past few years, which is arguably the cost of success in a salary cap era. When the dust settled after this past offseason, the Pens move forward with the same core, but a definitively new look. There are new guys on the blue line, with D's Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. While these are both good players, I am still not sold that the team has improved on defense. Will Paul Martin have an easy transition to a new offense? Michalek figures to transition more smoothly, as solid defense is an easy trait to plug in to a lineup. On F, Aaron Asham and Mike Comrie signed at reasonable prices. Comrie figures to have the best upside, but time will tell if he will produce or if he will join the long list of wingers that were just along for the ride on this team. The Asham signing is curious, since Matt Cooke re-signed. Not because of any bad blood between the two (both say it's water under the bridge), but because I'm not certain that he will not take bad penalties. If he stays out the box, he should round out the lineup well.
This season will be defined by questions (and eventual answers) for the Penguins. Near the top of the list is G Marc-Andre Fleury. To say that he has been inconsistent during his career is an understatement. He is a Stanley Cup winning goalie, yet at times it almost seems as if he isn't paying attention. There have been ups (3 NHL seasons with 35 or more wins) and downs (a mock cheer at home when making a save, which I did not particpate in, nor agree with). If you are like me and believe that the playoffs require a different style of hockey, then you know that the Pens will only go as far as Fleury can take them.
Defensively, I am not sure all the shiny new toys will make the team better and of course I have a few questions. What impact will losing Sergei Gonchar have on the power play? Gonchar was often a punching bag here, but the only time he deserved it was the end of last season. He was a top 5 defenseman for this team, and his ice time and value went far beyond the man advantage. Perhaps Alex Goligoski and/or Kris Letang will increase their role to fill the Gonch-void. Early signs are pointing to Letang. Youngsters like Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland, and potential 9 game tryout Simon Despres have upside, but the NHL is a long, long way from they AHL, or juniors in Despres' case. For my money, the highlight of this group is Brooks Orpik. On other teams, I truly believe Orpik would be a candidate for Captain. When the Pens funk was evident last year, he was the only player bold enough to say so to the media. He will most likely be wearing an "A" this season, and it is well earned.
By now, I'm sure you figured out that I also have questions about the forward group. C Jordan Staal will not be ready for the start of the regualr season due to complications from his foot surgery. How long will it take for him to recover? Will there be any long term setbacks for the sure to be perennial Selke candidate? One of the major flaws with the roster is the lack of proven, NHL caliber, wingers. Players like Matt Cooke, Mike Rupp, and Pascal Dupuis had career years in 2009-10. While I like what each brings to the team in terms of hustle and grit, it borders on lunacy to count on these guys to have career years every season. To date Chris Kunitz has been a disappointment, and Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy have been publically mentioned by GM Ray Shero as players that have to step it up. Players like Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey have been competing for a roster spot, but they do not figure to be impact players. The only young impact player, the Pens are counting on this season is W Eric Tangradi. While he may not be on this team at the start of the season, he will be up and ready for the playoffs.
The two biggest questions for the Pens will revolve around their two best players. While C Sidney Crosby is an incredible talent, this will be his first time as Captain without Bill Guerin since the Stanley Cup year. You remember that year right? Before Guerin arrived, the Pens had quit on Coach Michel Therrien and were in 10th place in the East. Can Crosby step up his leadership in the dressing room? Time will tell. The other large question mark is C Evgeni Malkin. His 2009-10 stats don't tell the full story of how poor he performed. This is a world class talent that spent much of the season either injured or mired in a funk that lead the majority of fans to compare him to Jaromir Jagr. Malkin has publically stated he has no problem moving to a spot on wing to help the team, and so far so good. This season you will find out all you ever need to know about Malkin and his mental makeup. Will he regain his place a top 5 scorer or will he pout at the first sign of personal struggle? Coach Dan Bylsma will have his hand full, despite the talented roster. He surely knows that destiny may sell tickets, but hard work and dedication will be the difference between fulfilled destiny or shattered dreams.
Player to Watch: C Evgeni Malkin