Despite trading away one of their superstar centers, a top four defenseman, and exiting the last two playoffs in the first round, the Pittsburgh Penguins are favored to win the Stanley Cup.
Is that fair? In short, yes. They still posses the top two players in the league, a forty goal scorer, one of the most talent defensemen in the league, and a goaltender entering his prime. On paper, they are the best team in the league.
But, as we've learned over the last three seasons, what happens on paper with this team doesn't always translate when the games are played. In fact, things have ended horribly for the Penguins since their Stanley Cup run in 2009. That can all change this season if these three members of the Penguins can have a bounce-back year.
Surprise! Martin had an average first season with the Penguins in 2010-2011. Last season, he put up similar numbers to Matt Niskanen in the regular season, then was exposed in the playoffs. Martin is a career -11 in the playoffs. Plus/minus ratings are typically overrated but when you see a player abandon the puck to avoid taking a hit, the rating seems to make sense. Martin did that countless times against the Flyers. He looked scared, at times, and couldn't keep up with the physical pace of the game. The Penguins actually played better when he was forced out of the lineup after a nasty hit from Brayden Schenn in game three.
This has to be Martin's last chance in Pittsburgh. Ray Shero was already looking to deal him last summer, possibly to Nashville. The Penguins' standard is Stanley Cup or bust, and with young defensemen like Simon Despres, Todd Bortuzzo, and Brian Strait, the Penguins wont waste any time on Martin. He must make an impact on this defensive unit and prove he is worth even half the contract he signed.
No player better symbolized the Pens' epic collapse of last season than Marc-Andre Fleury. From October-March, Fleury was excellent. But as the season crept into April, their goaltender appeared to wear down. It wasn't so much the amount of games Fleury played (67), it was the fact that he rarely rested, having to come in for Brent Johnson when Johnson would get chased. In fourteen situations where the Penguins played back to back nights, Fleury played in both games six times.
In the end, that's hardly an excuse. Fleury is 28 years old. Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe en route to a Stanley Cup, started 69 games for the Los Angeles Kings. The problem with Fleury was not fatigue, but rather poor defense and poor focus. There were several times when Fleury was hung out to dry in the Philadelphia series, but he missed opportunities to come up with big saves.
Fleury's comeback tour wont start in January, like Martin's. He'll have to wait until late April.
Head coach Dan Bylsma needs to bounce back from last season and his team needs to be better defensively from start to finish. On special teams, the penalty killing needs to carry over in the playoffs, and the power play needs to operate efficiently. Even if that means separating Crosby and Malkin. Everyone in Pittsburgh says Dan Bylsma needs to put both players on the top unit, but the priority should be having the most effective power play. If Malkin and Crosby produce goals on the first power play, then they need to stay. If not, the Penguins need to adapt.
Bylsma's biggest challenge will be making adjustments on the fly. Craig Adams has already divulged that the Penguins are working on different strategies for their penalty killing since the Flyers exposed them last April. James Neal indicated his role on the power play as a roving point man. But it's all for naught if the coach fails to adjust when things go wrong.
Obviously there are more players to consider in this category. Sidney Crosby has to stay healthy and return to an elite level, Eric Tangradi needs to prove he belongs in the NHL, and Brandon Sutter needs to become a strong defensive presence. But Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Dan Bylsma are essential to this year's successes or failures. If these three people are able to turn things around for the 2013 season, the Penguins will be in excellent position to win another Cup. If not, they could all be out of Pittsburgh by July.