Every Tuesday for the next 10 weeks Ryan Porth gets you set for a fresh NHL season with in depth looks at the Top 10 teams that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the 2012-13 season.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company looked invincible going into last spring’s postseason, but their Stanley Cup hopes unexpectedly vanished in a 1980s-style first-round series against rival Philadelphia. For the Penguins in that series, when it rained it poured. They gave up 30 goals in the six games, 20 of which came in the first three games — all losses.
However, the Penguins have moved on from a frustratingly short playoff appearance. GM Ray Shero made some offseason changes, headlined by the draft-day deal of centre Jordan Staal to Carolina. The biggest signing came in the form of Tomas Vokoun, who will aid Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Offseason moves aside, the Penguins, fully healthy heading into training camp, are determined to return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Here are three reasons why the Penguins are and aren’t poised to win their fourth-ever Stanley Cup:
The biggest subplot to the Penguins’ 2011-12 season was Crosby’s pair of returns from concussion.
Nobody really knew which Crosby the Penguins would be getting back, but he looked like his old self and tallied 37 points in 22 games. Between the last two concussion-shortened seasons, Sid the Kid has 103 points in 63 games, bumping his career points-per-game average to 1.4 – best in the NHL since he arrived as a rookie in 2005.
Undisputedly, when healthy, Crosby is the sport’s best and most complete player. Not that the Penguins necessarily suffered without him last year, as Hart Trophy recipient Evgeni Malkin went all beast-mode on the rest of the league and singlehandedly carried the team through certain stretches. But a healthy year from Crosby can only benefit Pittsburgh, which enters 2012-13 as a top-tier Cup favourite. His presence gives the Penguins a one-two punch at centre that no one else can match – or contain, for that matter.
By now, Dan Bylsma’s crew has learned how to win without No. 87 in the lineup – and that showed last year when they led the NHL in offence. A good portion of that had to do with the dominance of Malkin, who racked up a league-high 109 points. If Malkin was Batman in 2011-12, winger James Neal was his Robin.
Neal put in the rear view mirror a forgettable Pittsburgh debut, where he scored just one goal in 20 games after being acquired from Dallas in 2010-11. Neal potted 40 goals last season and fired 329 shots on goal, second in the NHL to Malkin’s 339. The breakout season earned Neal a six-year, $30 million extension.
The Penguins’ offence goes beyond Crosby, Malkin and Neal. Chris Kunitz, the third wheel on a line with Batman and Robin, scored 26 goals a year ago. Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke scored a career-high 25 and 19 goals, respectively. Ascending to stardom, Kris Letang is a main contributor from the blue line.
Just imagine if they had signed Zach Parise.…
Brent Johnson was a quality NHL backup for many years, but he (and his 3.11 GAA, .883 save percentage) was a weakness for the Penguins last year. Vokoun is here to save the day. Vokoun succeeded in his short stint with Washington in 2011-12, posting a 2.51 GAA over 48 games. He has always been steady between the pipes, and if he can start 25 games, it would allow Fleury to be held below 60 starts for the first time since an injury-riddled 2007-08 season. The last eight Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders have averaged 49.4 regular season starts the year they won.
Vokoun, 36, is searching for his first Cup before his time runs out in the NHL. If he can stay healthy and be the upgrade behind Fleury the Penguins expect/need him to be, the veteran netminder just might get his name etched on the best trophy in sports.
One of the Penguins’ biggest (only?) concerns that needed to be addressed this offseason was the blue line. As Shero said back in April, “When you give up 30 goals in six games in a playoff series, that’s not good.”
Even after that forgettable first-round exit against rival Philadelphia, Shero did nothing to improve the team’s defence corps. It actually took a slight step back, one could argue, with Zbynek Michalek heading to Phoenix in a draft-day trade (despite Michalek’s struggles last year). Paul Martin, who hasn’t been a good fit in his two seasons with the Penguins, is slated to skate important minutes in 2012-13 if nothing changes.
The Penguins are relying on their core of blue-chip defensive prospects, led by 21-year-old Simon Despres, to step up in the coming years. Those prospects likely won’t help the Penguins fulfill their goal of winning the Cup this season, though. A high-powered offence can offset blue-line deficiencies, but Letang and Brooks Orpik can only carry the defense so far.
When the Penguins traded Staal to Carolina for a package including third-line centre Brandon Sutter, Shero took offence to critics thinking the team is steering away from its three-centre model.
“We got Brandon Sutter, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – those are three really good centres,” Shero said the night he made the deal.
While Shero doesn’t expect his club to miss a beat with Sutter essentially replacing Staal, you never know how players are going to mesh on new teams until they hit the ice. Sutter, regarded as one of the league’s top defensive centres, doesn’t have the size and experience Staal possesses. Further, Staal hovered around the 20-minute mark each game; Sutter has never averaged more than 17:23 of ice time.
Bylsma will be asking a lot from Sutter. If the 2007 first-round pick isn’t up to the challenge, it will weaken the Penguins’ elite depth at the centre position.
We know Fleury is capable of backstopping 16 playoff wins – he proved just that in 2009 when he helped the Penguins capture their third Stanley Cup. Whenever somebody doubts the 28-year-old’s ability, apologists point to that impressive postseason of his, which featured two Game 7 victories and three shutouts.
Aside from that isolated postseason, however, Fleury’s second-season numbers haven’t impressed. When you take 2009 out of the equation, Fleury’s GAA is 2.95, and his save percentage is .893 in five other playoff appearances (55 games). He’s also coming off his worst postseason showing, posting a 4.63 GAA against Philly.
As mentioned above, Vokoun’s presence could help Fleury be better paced throughout the season and be fresh going into April and, maybe, beyond. Vokoun or not, it’s up to Fleury to once again prove that he can be clutch when the games matter most.
Prediction: Pittsburgh stays neck-and-neck with New York all year atop the division and conference, but if Shero doesn’t add a defenceman by the trade deadline, the Pens will be vulnerable to another premature playoff exit.
How far will the Pittsburgh Penguins make it in 2012-13?