In what was an injury plagued 2010-2011 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins managed to surprise the NHL when they finished as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. While season ending injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin derailed the Pens' bid for a deep playoff run in 2011, they served as a litmus test to how rich the organization was with young talent. Now, with Malkin and Crosby (hopefully) returning, the Penguins return as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup in 2012.
Sports Illustrated has already predicted the Penguins to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in this upcoming Stanley Cup Final. On paper, I could not agree more. As we learned last year however, there is a lot that can happen between now and June. Let's take a look at how this team will be constructed:
Projected lines based on last practice
The Penguins definitely put their strength up the middle with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; two of the top five talents in the world. Despite Crosby's absence to start the season, all signs point to a return later on in the year. Malkin, who has underperformed the last two seasons, has dominated in preseason thanks to a grueling offseason workout and a new found determination. He realizes his effort over the last two seasons has knocked him out of the discussion as an elite player and, based on recent interviews, Malkin appears to be poised for rebound. The third line is anchored by Jordan Staal, a more defensive minded forward with the ability to score 20-25 goals. Keep in mind, Staal missed the first half of the season and still contributed 11 goals while centering the top line in Crosby's absence. While he does not have the same offensive talent as Crosby or Malkin, Staal is arguably the best third line center in the league.
On a lesser note, the Penguins dumped Max Talbot after two useless seasons, lost Michael Rupp to New York, and acquired Richard Park. Those moves appear to be minute as many of the younger players showed they were able to play in the NHL last season. Dustin Jeffrey will be back after he recovers from knee surgery and could anchor the fourth line with Arron Asham and Craig Adams.
There certainly are some question marks for the forwards, the biggest being health. Is Steve Sullivan going to stay healthy? In the past four seasons, he has played over 60 games only once (2009-2010) while missing half of last season in Nashville. Chris Kunitz has missed 48 games over the last two seasons combined due to lower body injuries. While the news on Sidney Crosby's recovery has been encouraging, the nature of the injury is so enigmatic that there are no guarantees of a safe return.
The powerplay is also a huge question. After being one of the worst teams with the man advantage the last few years, the Penguins have retooled their approach resulting in more success in the preseason. A major change includes using four forwards instead of three with Sullivan manning the point. If there was truly a weakness for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was the powerplay. At the very least, if they become average on the powerplay, it will have major effects on the season in a positive way.
Will James Neal score 25-30 goals in a full season with the Penguins? Will Tyler Kennedy repeat his 20+ goal performance of last year? Can Pascal Dupuis step up and become more of a finisher than in year's past? The Penguins lack a true superstar at wing but they have enough talent to contribute. James Neal played well in all facets except scoring last year. Now in his first full season as a Penguin, Neal needs to score. Period.
After serving a suspension that kept him out of the playoffs, Matt Cooke is back on his last opportunity with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Cooke's recklessness last year made the organization look foolish. With Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux denouncing headshots, Cooke elbowed Rangers' defenseman, Ryan McDonagh and was suspended 10 games plus the first round of the playoffs. To say the least, Cooke is on thin ice-no pun intended-. In preseason Cooke seemed a bit more controlled in deciding who he was going to hit. If he is able to stay out of trouble with new NHL disciplinarian Czar Brendan Shanahan, Cooke will continue to be a vital piece for the Penguins.
Once Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek got acclimated to playing in Pittsburgh's system last year, the Penguins defense became one of the best in the NHL. The Penguins finished 7th in goals allowed, 5th in shots allowed and 1st in penalty kill. Kris Letang will be the focal point from an offensive side of the blue line while Michalek will continue to be one of the game's best shot blockers. Brooks Orpik will most likely miss the season opener against Vancouver as he recovers from an offseason sports hernia operation, but he shouldn't miss more than a few games. While the centers are world class, the defense is the deepest position in the organization. Former first round picks Simon Despres (2009) and Joe Morrow (2011) looked comfortable this September and are merely waiting for their chance. That may be sooner rather than later depending on Ray Shero's willingness to deal defensemen at the deadline.
Marc Andre Fleury was on the fringe of being a Vezina trophy finalist last season after a putrid start in October. By the end of the season, Fleury posted a 2.32 GAA .918 SV% as he helped carry the offensively punchless Penguins to the playoffs. Now, approaching age 27, Fleury looks to be entering his prime with a defensive unit that projects to be among the best in the league. If he can avoid some early season struggles, Fleury could be adding a Vezina trophy to his cabinet.
Meanwhile, backup goalie Brent Johnson is as solid as they come. In 23 games last season, Johnson 13-5 with a 2.17 GAA and .922 SV%. Simply put, Johnson kept the team afloat while Marc Andre Fleury struggled. He is definitely one of the better backups in the NHL and should get decent playing time when Fleury needs a break.
As stated before, the Penguins are the best team on paper. When everyone is healthy they possess elite forwards, shut down defensemen and a top five goaltender. Compound that with an excellent system that is implemented in all levels of the organization along with the coach of the year from last season, and you have a team poised for a Stanley Cup run. If the Penguins are fortunate enough to avoid any major injuries during the course of the season, they may wind up as the franchise's best team since 1993.