We've waited as long as we could possibly wait. For a few weeks now we've sat through preseason "meaningless" hockey. Now as the Penguins site mere days away from opening up the 2010-11 season at the Consol Energy Center against the Flyers, it's about time we gear up for another season with a full Pensburgh preview.
The only way you can sufficiently follow up a Stanley Cup-winning season is by winning another Cup the following season. That's the harsh reality of it all and unfortunately one the Penguins did not complete in 2009-10. That's not to say the season was a complete wash, but how many people picked the Pens to get bumped in the second round?
Fact is, up until that elimination game against the Canadiens, the Penguins had put together two very long, back-to-back season. In 07-08 it was a Stanley Cup run that fell short, but still had the Pens playing well into June. In 08-09 it was another Stanley Cup run, this time with a better outcome, that had the Pens playing through the first two weeks of June and celebrating throughout the summer. So by the time the 09-10 season rolled around, we started to notice how banged up some of the players really were: Geno's shoulder kept him out for a few weeks, Gonchar's wrist put him on the shelf for five or six weeks, Chris Kunitz missed a few weeks with a "lower-body injury," Marc-Andre Fleury was showing signs of fatigue/mental anguish and the Penguins at times started to look more like WBS than Pittsburgh. That's what you can come to expect from a team that was pushed to the limits two seasons in a row. At some point, it's going to need a rest.
Despite all those injuries the Penguins still soldiered on to finish fourth in the Eastern Conference to snag that last spot for home ice. They made easy work of the Senators in the first round but then hit a wall against the Canadiens in the semifinals, losing to the Habs in Game 7 by the final of 5-2. It was a sickening way to watch the season come to an end, especially since all watching more or less perceived it as being a done deal when the Habs went up 4-0 by the middle of the second period.
At this point, while still keeping on eye on the remainder of the playoffs/Stanley Cup run, the Penguins front office was left with tough decisions to make, and Penguins fans were left to speculate who would stay, and who would go.
The Penguins ranked ninth overall on the penalty kill last season, which is pretty flattering when you consider they finished 25th overall in penalties, averaging roughly 14.6 penalty minutes per game (PS - Flyers were 29th). But on the plus side, for every 10 shorthanded situations the Penguins found themselves in in 2009-10, the team killed off roughly 8.5 of them. Missing Jordan Staal for the start of the season could pose an interesting dilemma for the Pens, but forwards like Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke and new addition Arron Asham should be able to provide a strong enough counter to any top team's power-play unit he returns.
There's no denying that the Penguins' forwards are some of the best in the league. If Pittsburgh isn't going to kill opponents with speed then they are going to do it will straight-up skill. Odds are, it will be a combination of the two. Contain Crosby and you leave Malkin open. Contain Malkin, and you leave Crosby open. But the depth of the Pens goes even further than the proverbial two-headed monster. Newly acquired forward Mike Comrie was showing off some skills during the preseason and could find himself getting good looks at the net if he's sharing a line with Sid. For a scrappy forward, Arron Asham has a set of soft hands that could rival a second-line forward. Plus, gritty Matt Cooke showed some flashes of brilliance last season on the offensive end of the game.
In an obvious area that won't matter at all once the postseason rolls around, the Penguins were, for what it's worth, pretty solid on the shootout last season. In 10 shootout opportunities, the Pens won eight of them, allowing them to steal eight extra points in the process. Again, it won't make or break the season (unless you're the Rangers of course), but it could ultimately make the difference between whether or not the Pens seal up home ice in the playoffs or fall to a five through eight seed. FYI - Pens also posted a third-best .793 save percentage in the shootout last season, allowing only six goals on 29 attempts.
The Penguins' defense was a bit shoddy last season, so until this new corp of players convinces fans otherwise that label will remain hanging over the team. The additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek are expected to bolster the Pens in that department, but there is also an existing group of guys like the ever-improving Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski who the Pens will rely on this season. Brooks Orpik is a machine all on his own, but coming back from offseason surgery is an entirely different task on its own, not to mention an undisclosed lower-body injury during the preseason (rumored to be a groin injury).
The power play was a definitely area of concern last season and no doubt a department the Penguins will look to improve on this year. It's almost insulting in a way to look at a team stacked with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang and see that it finished 19th overall (17.2%) on the man advantage last season. This is the sort of team that should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents any time they take a stupid penalty. Last season it triggered more of a shoulder shrug. This year the addition of Mike Comrie and the advancements of Letang and Goligoski should, in theory, make this team a Top 10 PP unit.
"Dumb penalties" will always put a team in a bad position. While I did offer praise for the Penguins' penalty kill in the strengths portion of this preview, there's a double-sided aspect to the entire situation. After all, what good is Crosby or Malkin to the offense if they're sitting in the box? Geno racked up a career-high 100 penalty minutes last season, 20 more than his previous high of 80 back in 06-07 and 08-09. While it's nice to see him getting a little chippy out there, he's much more useful to the Pens if he can find ways of staying out of the box and leaving the elbows in the corner to guys like Asham, Cooke and Orpik.
More to come on this, as the Penguins will continue to make cuts throughout the rest of the week in an effort to finalize the roster before Thursday's opener against the Flyers.
Keeping the black and gold glasses to the side for just a bit, I don't think it's a gamble to say the Pens are going to make the playoffs by the end of the season. In an effort to get a little more into specifics, perhaps that's where the chances are taken.
I won't go about saying exactly how the season will pan out, who the Pens will face in each round and where they will be when the first week of June rolls around. However, I will say that I'm confident this team has all the pieces in place to make another serious run for the Stanley Cup. Say what you will about Fleury last season, but he played well behind a porous defense. Did he let in a few soft goals? Yeah, but all goalies do. When he's getting lit up on odd-man rushes because the defense is still limping back to give a little help, the weak goals tend to stand out a little more because he can't justify it with a ridiculous save or insane stop. This is his year to prove the naysayers wrong once again - and I say once again because his praise in 08-09 was so short lived based on how quickly people were getting on his case just one month into last season.
Bold prediction: Pens take the division, advance to the postseason as the No. 2 seed and mow through to the Conference Finals. That's where my predictions end.