It's going to be a sprint of a shortened NHL season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to get back on the ice. A look at some of the questions that will shape this year.
You’ve probably got Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis chained together on one line and Evgeni Malkin and James Neal attached on the other. Chris Kunitz, last year’s Malkin-Neal third guy, is expected to be shifted back to Crosby’s line, where he’s played since the Pens acquired him in 2009, barring Crosby injuries. That leaves a huge hole. Can Eric Tangradi finally make a jump to productive NHL player? Will Dustin Jeffrey be given the chance to play there? Or youngster Beau Bennett? Or a rotating group of Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and who knows who else?
How will the net tandem shake out?
James Mirtle says that a 50 game NHL schedule won’t even be THAT compressed, so it’s not like the team will have 4 or 5 games every week. But still, the move to acquire Tomas Vokoun looks pretty good right now for Ray Shero and the Pens. Marc-Andre Fleury had a stellar regular season and just as dreadful of a playoff. With a goalie of Vokoun’s caliber, it’s likely at some point of this season we’re going to find a fan or media generated goalie controversy, the first true one since 2008 when backup Ty Conklin played well during a Fleury injury absence, but Fleury returned as the #1 goalie and played the best hockey of his career leading the Pens to the Stanley Cup Finals. Vokoun has a checkered injury history, but he also almost always has a higher save percentage than Fleury. Dan Bylsma’s usage of the two will be crucial, especially as the playoffs approach. Who will emerge as the go-to guy?
General Sidney Crosby head-spot question mark
It’s no fun to talk about and something that’s been beaten into the dirt a million times, but at least for now, it’s a question of how Crosby will respond to NHL game action. Hockey is a collision sport and the most famous melon in the business is bound to get hit at some point. Can Crosby put concussion/neck fears behind him or will they put him back on the shelf when he takes fairly routine hockey contact (ala the David Krejci hit that re-injured him).
Can Paul Martin bounce back?
He’s the most targeted man in the lineup due to his salary, but the Penguins will need Paul Martin to find his game pretty quickly in 2013. Though he actually had a pretty decent 2nd half of the season, Martin’s play will be analyzed and scrutinized by fans everywhere. With Zbynek Michalek gone and no obvious replacement found, Martin is going to be a huge piece of the puzzle at even strength and on the penalty kill for Pittsburgh. Can he have a bounce back season and play a solid game and chew up a lot of minutes? The team needs him to be a very steady presence.
How will life without Jordan Staal be?
As Justin showed us, Jordan Staal was asked a lot of by the Pens, and he performed spectacularly, driving possession and shifting from defense to offense. Now Staal is gone, and in his place will be a fine two-way player in Brandon Sutter. But Sutter is not Staal and won’t be used in quite the same way. Will the Pens play Crosby more in the defensive zone? Will they ask Malkin and Crosby to kill penalties even rarely? And that PK unit, one of the best in the league in the past few seasons, loses their best forward. Joe Vitale might get an increased role to join Sutter and the regulars of Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams but how the Pens move on without Staal will shape their defensive identity.