Penguins Season Preview
Christmas has come a couple weeks late for hockey fans this year. The new season is set to open on the 19th. Every hockey fan is hoping to find the Stanley Cup wrapped up and waiting for them beneath the traditional hockey-tree made of broken sticks and tattered, unwashed equipment. Last year the Penguins were at the top of the standings. A common expectation these days despite the rash of injuries to key players over the past two years. Now with both Crosby and Malkin healthy everything looks set for a long playoff run.
Even if the Penguins are the odds-on Vegas favorite to win it all, don't place your bets too soon. The shortened season will intensify every error and every slump. A bad stretch of hockey like that seen in the Flyers series can land them out of the playoffs in the blink of an eye. It can also allow a streaking Crosby or Malkin to propel them to the top just as quickly. With each new season and every new face, teams take on a different identity. Here is a look at keys to the offense, defense, and goaltending.
The Jordan Staal trade at the draft hasn't sunk in yet. It probably won't for a few games while you catch yourself looking for the giant #11 pterodactyl making a power move to the net. It might leave a funny taste in your mouth to see Brandon Sutter in the exact same role Staal used to occupy. Sutter probably took his seat in the locker room too. They are big shoes to fill and he has to balance Malkin's highlight reel goals with sound defense and hard work. Sutter is a top-flight penalty killer with a big frame and better speed than Staal had. Playing on a high-scoring Penguins team he could easily eclipse his career high of 21 goals. Especially if Bylsma wants to use his right-handed shot and soft hands on the powerplay.
The defense and Paul Martin specifically, were lightning rods for blame for the playoff collapse last year. While criticism was deserved, the breakdown of defense came from everyone on the team. Usually responsible forwards were more enamored with scoring goals than playing responsible hockey. With that said Paul Martin has the most pressure to perform this year. Letang and Orpik will deliver what is expected from them. A perfect yin and yang pairing that complement each other well. The second defense pairing has to rely on Martin. His years of experience will be relied on as an anchor for the second pairing. His options as a partner are depressingly inexperienced for a top-4 defenseman. Engelland and Niskanen will both see time in that role. Prospects Simon Despres and Joe Morrow will likely get another year of seasoning in the AHL before they get a permanent spot with the big club.
Last but certainly not least, the goaltending situation. It's just about as annoying and erratic as the Jersey Shore "situation," almost. Marc-Andre Fleury, brilliantly athletic and just entering his prime. There has to be faith that he'll perform. Goalies are unpredictable by nature, it's just part of the gig. But newcomer Tomas Vokoun is a huge upgrade over Brent Johnson. Even if Johnson did have the coolest mask in the game. With Vokoun we now have two legitimate starting goalies on the team. I still have nightmares of games against the Panthers when Vokoun would make 50 saves and steal an awful game in Febuary. A couple years ago Florida was routinely beaten by local pee-wee teams when they didn't have Vokoun in net. He is a solid option if Fleury falters. His presence with the condensed schedule is all the more important to lighten the load from Fleury. Evil genius Ray Shero probably saw all of this coming.
Penguins finish 4th (AGAIN! ARGH)
Lose in Conf. Finals to Carolina, the Staal's and Alex Semin. Everybody cries.
Sutter finds a spot on the powerplay and scores 26-28.
Fleury posts best career Sv%.
Joe Morrow is impressive but stays in AHL even though he's too good.
Shero trades him in a package for a great defenseman.