I know that the conventional wisdom in the hockey media is that this year's Penguins team is not as good as last year's team. Yet in spite of the fact that Barry Melrose is never wrong about anything, after watching the Pens blaze through the NHL over the past few months and wax the Flyers in their playoff opener, I've found myself questioning this assumption. Here are 6 reasons why:
1. The two biggest stars. Unlike last season, when Sidney Crosby missed significant time due to ankle injury, this year the team has had basically a full healthy season of Sid. A full year to build on-ice chemistry, and a full year to bond. It just seems like the connection between captain and team is tighter this year. And who can doubt that Evgeni Malkin is a better player this year? Aside from winning his first scoring title, Geno's game has progressed in all areas, particularly his defensive acumen and his on-ice leadership.
2. Chris Kunitz. While we all lamented the departure of local-boy-made-good and all-around great guy Ryan Malone, particularly during the winter slump when his energy and aggressiveness were missed, the acquisition of Kunitz was the best possible response by the front office. In Kunitz we've gotten a tough, young, skilled winger like Malone (but arguably a better player), and one who (unlike Malone) has the experience of helping a team win a Stanley Cup. And yes, we'll be paying Kunitz about $1m less per year than Tampa paid Malone.
3. Bill Guerin. Similarly, the departure of Gary Roberts left the Pens with a significant void of veteran leadership. In acquiring Guerin for a song, Pittsburgh gets a skilled, gritty veteran player with the experience of winning Cups in arguably the most fundamentally sound hockey system in recent memory (the Lemaire/Robinson/Burns-era Devils). Guerin is definitely a step up from Roberts.
4. Marian Hossa. While his hockey skills are obviously above question, signing Hossa would have likely consigned Pittsburgh to Senators/Lightning territory (i.e., being unable to build a solid team because 3 salaries back you up against the salary cap). Would we have been able to extend Fleury and Staal with that contract? Would we have been able to acquire key role players like Kunitz? Doubtful. Moreover, I'm not a fan of adding superstar players as deadline rentals, because it can upset the leadership balance in the locker room. And I would much rather head into the playoffs with guys like Guerin who actually want to be here.
5. Dan Bylsma. This is tough for me to write, because I was not a fan of firing Michel Therrien: ultimately I'm not sure he would have been fired if he'd had a full season of Gonchar, Kunitz, and Guerin. And insofar as he instituted a hard-working, defensively-sound system in Pittsburgh and down through the minor leagues (one which Bylsma emulates), this organization owes Therrien a debt of gratitude for the role he played in taking us to the Finals just 2 years after the nightmare season of '05-'06. If Pittsburgh wins the Stanley Cup this year, I hope Therrien gets one of the rings. All that said, the dynamic between players and coach finally broke down this year. To the extent that the team buys into what Bylsma is doing, in a way that didn't happen with Therrien, they're better off.
6. Experience. It's odd to think about the Penguins this way, because they're such a young team, but last season really turned them into a veteran squad. Most of the players on last year's team had seen a total of 5 playoffs games at the time the postseason began; now those same players can say they came within 2 games of winning a Stanley Cup. And we've added three players with rings (Kunitz, Guerin, Fedotenko) and another (His Satanic Majesty) who played in the Finals with Buffalo in 1999. Last year, we were playing a team that had been there before; this year, whomever comes out of the West won't have that advantage if we make it that far.