The Penguins are living proof that patience pays off. Bite the lip, play through 82 games knowing that you won’t get a sniff of the playoffs, and hope that your drafting holds up. It was just four years ago when the Penguins won the draft lottery and unsurprisingly took Sidney Crosby with their first pick. Just a year later they took another highly-touted player in Evgeni Malkin. Neither still able to grow much facial hair, the young duo have already managed to reach the finals, and although the result was not what they had in mind, it’s a sign of many great seasons to come. Penguins fans, be patient, the big one will come back to Steeltown soon.
Having Malkin and Crosby is reason enough for the Pens to stay competitive every year. The two forwards are amongst the top ten of the league and not enough can be said to justify how talented and skilled these two stars are. Malkin, the better scorer of the two, really proved that he can carry a team on his shoulders, while Crosby, the playmaker, proved that he was the right choice as the Penguins’ new captain – calm, collected, skilled, and more importantly, mature. It wasn’t too long ago Crosby took jabs from hockey pundits and players alike for diving and whining, but remember that Wayne Gretzky wasn’t too different when he first broke into the league, and now that Crosby has matured, to along with his great work ethic, he’s shown that he can really lead this team. Of course, no team can just win alone with their star players. Jordan Staal is becoming one the league’s premier forecheckers, and while playing behind Malkin and Crosby has somewhat limited his offensive role, with the departure of Marian Hossa (which really left a sour taste for everyone in Pittsburgh), look for him to replicate his rookie season scoring success. Losing Hossa and Ryan Malone hurt, especially when Crosby has been lobbying hard for Ray Shero to acquire a scoring winger for him to play with. The Pens’ offense, despite losing Crosby for an extended period, was seventh in the league along with a fourth ranked PP to boot. Even though Malone and Hossa were big pieces of their offense, and newcomers Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan are a clear step below them, don’t expect those numbers to falter. A sign of a superstar is the ability to make their teammates better, and both Malkin and Crosby can do that. Just ask Petr Sykora, who netted whose 63 points last year was the most since 2001. Maxime Talbot has also developed into a strong forechecker, and along with Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis may provide one of the fastest checking lines in the East. Bill Thomas was also a nice addition to the lineup, whose abrasive play may come in handy with the departure of Georges Laraque.
Losing Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney took a big chunk out of the Penguins’ offense, but this also a blessing in disguise for Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to show the coaching staff what they can do. Gonchar is one of the league’s most underrated defenseman, and deserves a Norris nomination each year, while Whitney, who had a bit of a disappointing season last year, was looking to bounce back but will remain sidelined with foot surgery and won’t be back until late December. Letang and Goligoski were long buried in the depth charts because of their similarity to Gonchar and Whitney, which mean that stay-at-homes Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, Mark Eaton, and Rob Scuderi often got the nod ahead of them to form a more balanced six-man group. This will be a fantastic opportunity for them to show the world what they can offer.
Marc-Andre Fleury battled bouts of inconsistency throughout his career until last year. He’s slowly becoming the number one franchise goalie he was drafted to be, and with a trip to the finals he was quickly quieted his critics. Mediocre season in the past have made Fleury no stranger to losing, but that doesn’t mean he liked it, and with a change in pads and technique he’s really valuted the Pens into one of the East’s elite. As long as he can stay healthy, the Pens will remain Cup contenders, even if they don’t have Gonchar or have an elite winger to play alongside Crosby.
The Pens have very little cap space, because of Crosby’s new contract and will have even less next year after Malkin’s extension and new cap number kicks in. However, the Pens can rest easy that both players, along with Fleury, Whitney, and Orpik, will remain in Pittsburgh for many years to come. The Pens sold out 67 consecutive regular season games in Pittsburgh, and with a new arena in place the Penguins have finally found themselves back onto Pennsylvania’s radar.
One of the Pens’ biggest problems last year was it’s PK, which was ranked a mediocre 23rd. Now that Crosby and Malkin have slowly played themselves onto the penalty killing unit, look for that number to improve. No Gonchar is a bit alarming, but with Orpik, Gill, Scuderi (who really played well in the playoffs), and a healthy Eaton it should hold up. Another one of the Pens’ weaknesses was face-offs, which was really exploited by a better Wings team. Staal was the team’s best centreman last year, and even then he was rather average. With Staal moving up to Malkin’s wing, it means that Crosby and Malkin will have to really improve in that face of the game. In key situations the Pens may still opt to have Staal take the face-off, but they’re really hoping that the more offensively talented Crosby and Malkin can do that instead.
Miroslav Satan – Sidney Crosby – Petr Sykora
Jordan Staal – Evgeni Malkin – Tyler Kennedy
Pascal Dupuis – Max Talbot – Matt Cooke
Ruslan Fedotenko – Jeff Taffe – Eric Godard
Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang
Hal Gill – Rob Scuderi
Mark Eaton – Alex Goligoski
Marc-Andre Fleury – Dany Sabourin
scratches: Bill Thomas, Darryl Sydor, Kris Beech
injuries: Sergei Gonchar (6 months, dislocated shoulder), Ryan Whitney (6 months, surgery)
Coach: Michel Therrien
GM: Ray Shero
Predicted finish: 2nd Atlantic, 2nd East