by Tony on 09/24/09 at 04:19 PM ET
Well, for this last one, the roundtable is down to one. Everyone’s pretty busy with the start of the season looming and, God forbid, the rest of their lives, so I’m taking this one solo.
It’s been a long time coming, friends.
Arguably, the Penguins have had collective bullseyes on their backs ever since Mario Lemieux’s arrival in 1984, with Jaromir Jagr following him in 1990, along with two Stanley Cups. There was a bit of a lull in the first half of the new millenium when the Pens fell on hard times, but that started changing in 2004 with the drafting of Evgeni Malkin, followed the next year after the NHL lockout by the winning of the Draft Lottery and the selection of Sidney Crosby. Even though the Penguins were extremely young, NHL teams immediately went after them (see: Flyers, Philadelphia), sending a message to the young but world-class talents. After a couple more tough years, the Pens got back to the playoffs in ‘07, losing in five games to eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators. The ‘07-‘08 NHL season saw the Penguins progress to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to lose in six games to Detroit.
The Penguins’ hard work finally paid off last season. Although the Pens had one of their best starts to the season in team history, a poor midseason resulted in the very real possibility that the Pens would miss the playoffs after making the Finals in the previous season. That prospect resulted in the firing of Michel Therrien and hiring Dan Bylsma on an interim basis. All Bylsma did was lead the Penguins to a 18-3-4 record to finish the regular season and got the Pens home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which eventually resulted in the Penguins removing Bylsma’s interim tag. After disposing of the Flyers in six games, the Penguins came back from an 0-2 deficit to defeat the Capitals in seven games, including a 6-2 Game Seven win coming on Caps ice. The Pens swept the Hurricanes to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second consecutive year, and once again, facing the Red Wings.
This time would be different, though. The Pens, just as in the season before, dropped the first two games of the series in Detroit. However, the Penguins came back to win four of the next five games, including a thrilling 2-1 win in Detroit in Game Seven to win the Stanley Cup on June 12th.
The offseason, with all of the Penguins’ travels documented with their respective days with the Cup, has been fantastic. That said, those days are ancient history now. The rest of the NHL not only doesn’t care, they’ll be even more focused to knock off Sid, Geno and the rest of the Penguins. That aforementioned bullseye is now double the size. Not only will the Penguins’ opponents be going up against the NHL-publicized “face of the NHL” in Crosby and the defending NHL scoring leader in Malkin, now they’re facing the defending Stanley Cup champions.
There are dozens of situations that occur during the course of the regular season and playoffs that play a crucial role in determining who will hoist the Cup in June. With so much parity in the NHL nowadays, repeating as Cup champions is even more difficult. That said, if the Penguins want to repeat, here are some of the key points that will go a long way in determining if that’s gonna happen:
Injuries - An obvious one. A significant injury to a significant player could derail their hopes, whether that’s in terms of a slot for the playoffs or in a series. For the most part, however, the Penguins have overcome major injuries in the last two seasons to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. In the ‘07-‘08 season, Marc-Andre Fleury only played 35 games, while Sidney Crosby played only 53. This past season Sergei Gonchar only played 25 games. That said, it does help that Evgeni Malkin hasn’t missed a game in those last two seasons. So on the surface, it would appear a loss of Crosby and/or Malkin may not hurt the Penguins as much as another major injury to, say, Gonchar would be, not that the Pens would want to experience it.
Fleury - For all of Marc-Andre Fleury’s brilliance in the playoffs, especially in the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s easy to forget when times weren’t going so well for the Penguins’ netminder. However, to refresh your memory, it’s fair to mention that at the time of the coaching change on Feb. 15th, Fleury’s record was 19-15-3, with both his save percentage and goals allowed percentage among the worst in the NHL. It seems as though Fleury must be in his 30’s by now, but he still won’t turn 25 until November. So it’s reasonable to assume that Fleury is beginning to hit his prime. It would surprising if Fleury’s stats reverted back to last season’s levels, but if it does, perhaps the next entry may play a part in it;
Defense - The #1 key for a repeat of a Cup championship for the Penguins could very well be their ability to adequately replace free agency losses of defensive defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. Scuderi’s playoff performance, in which he effectively neutralized Mike Richards, Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal and Henrik Zetterberg, most likely doubled his salary in free agency, eventually signing with the Los Angeles Kings. Gill, while being slow as molasses, proved to be an effective penalty killer as well as defending along the boards. On the surface, it appears that GM Ray Shero filled Scuderi’s void as best he could in signing former Blue Jay McKee to a one-year contract. McKee is the same type of shot-blocking defensive defenseman as Scuderi, in fact his stats in that area were better than Scuderi’s last season. However, McKee’s biggest liability over the course of his career has been his health. If McKee can stay healthy, it will go a long way’s towards an already underrated Penguins’ defensive corps getting that much better. Replacing Gill in the lineup will be offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski, who has had an outstanding training camp. The Penguins look to take full advantage of having three excellent offensive defensemen in Gonchar, Goligoski and Kris Letang.
Secondary Scoring - While Malkin and Crosby led the Penguins with 35 and 33 goals, respectively, it’s the secondary scoring that will play a big part in the Pens’ fortunes this season. They’ll have to do it without two of their top five goal scorers in Petr Sykora (25 goals) and Miro Satan (17), who have both moved on. An important note to add, however, is that there appears to be a concerted effort on behalf of the Pens’ coaching staff to get Crosby to shoot the puck more. Getting even more goals out of Crosby, who’s trying out a new one-piece stick, makes the Penguins an even more dangerous team, obviously. But during those games when the defense is successful in keeping Crosby and Malkin off the scoreboard, conventional wisdom indicates that trade deadline acquisitions Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz should be able to sufficiently replace the departed Sykora and Satan, as well as if Jordan Stall can increase his goal total from last year’s 22. A wildcard in this discussion in my view is Ruslan Fedotenko, who has some great chemistry with Malkin. The issue is that Fedotenko, who scored 16 goals last season, simply didn’t put the puck in the net on enough of those fantastic feeds from Malkin.
Special Teams - If you’re a regular reader, you know my pet peeve with the Penguins is their powerplay. During the regular season, the Pens’ powerplay was a woeful 20th in the league with a 17.2% success rate. They did improve to 20.6% in the playoffs, but that being said, a team with this much offensive world-class firepower simply should be nowhere near the bottom half of the league in the powerplay. Perhaps the aforementioned effort to get Crosby to shoot more will help with that. Surely, a healthy Gonchar for the season will. I also think though that a less-gunshy Letang and Goligoski on the points, rather than Mark Eaton and/or Brooks Orpik on the 2nd unit, will help as well. On the penalty kill, where the Pens finished a very respectable 8th in the league with an 82.7% kill rate, Scuderi and Gill played a large part, particularly on the 3-on-5, where Scuderi was perhaps the best in the NHL stopping the cross-ice passes. It’s in this area where the Pens will have to shore things up with the loss of Scuderi and Gill. Eaton, Orpik and McKee should be able to fill those voids, but time will tell in terms of how well.
Division/Conference - The Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference certainly got no easier in the offseason. In fact, if you read some of the “experts” predictions, you might as well hand over the Cup to the Flyers right now (you do still have to have a “decent” goaltender, right ??). The East is going to be tight as ever, with additions such as the Flyers’ Chris Pronger, the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik, the Habs’ Brian Gionta and the Sens’ Alex Kovalev, In the West, until someone knocks them off, the road to the Finals will continue to go through Detroit. Even after losing Marian Hossa, there’s still too much firepower. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wings back to the Finals once again.
Trade Deadline - I added this bullet at the last minute. Penguins fans shouldn’t be surprised by this time if GMRS pulls another gem of a deal out of his hat on Trade Deadline Day. Last season, with Kunitz already in the mix in the earlier trade with Anaheim, Shero acquired Guerin for what turned out to be a 3rd round 2009 draft pick in what at the time seemed to be a minor move. Guerin stepped right into the top line with Crosby and jelled like they’d been together the entire year. Something to consider: The Penguins will have the following players as UFA’s next offseason (barring extensions of course): Guerin, Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, Gonchar, Eaton, McKee, Brent Johnson, with Letang as an RFA. That list should go a long way in determing which players come and go at the Deadline this year.
Prediction - Are you nuts ?? The previous paragraphs point out that in today’s NHL, winning the Cup, for the upper echelon teams anyway, is very nearly a crapshoot. Generally, the teams that stay healthy have a better shot than the others, but that’s strictly a guess as well. You could just as easily put about 8 or so teams in a hat, pulled one from the East and West out. and call that your prediction.
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Originally at Blogspot, then at MVN, TheConfluence has over 1500 articles reporting Penguins news as well as jumping on my soapbox to opine constructive Penguins criticism.
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