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Top (Non-Lockout) Pittsburgh Penguin Moments of 2012

Aside from the dreaded lockout that's ground everything to a halt, 2012 was a memorable year with another scoring championship, some meaningful contract extensions, a tight division race and one of the sloppiest playoff series you'll ever see.

Justin K. Aller
11. James Neal signs 6 year, $30 million contract [February 19, 2012]

At the time the terms seemed like a bit of a stretch- Neal was in the middle of a good season, but given the Pens cap situation that was a lot of money and years to commit. By season’s end, Neal was a 40 goal scorer and given some of the high-price deals around the league, locking this player up for what should be his prime years (the contract covers age 25-31) this contract should be a lot alike the Jordan Staal, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang deals that look like outright steals for the team towards the end of the contract.

It also gives the Pens stability on the wing- there’s no surprise that having a goal scoring winger has been an issue and Neal has great hands, size, physicality and skating ability. He’s a perfect fit for a team with two superstar centers and should be a 30+ goal a year threat over the course of his deal.

10. Non-Crosby injuries pile up
Thankfully we all may have forgotten, but 2012 started with a six game losing streak and a pile of injuries. It got so bad (when Neal was believed to have a serious broken foot injury [that he ended up being able to play through]) that I suggested the following lines:

Richard Park, 2nd line center everybody.

Defensively things were a mess too- the Pens had to dress 12 different defensemen over the course of the season and at one point had three of the top four defensemen down with injuries too. This gave opportunities and you’d have to say guys like Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland definitely stepped up and performed well filling bigger than anticipated roles for times in 2012. Alex Picard even had to play 17 games in the 2011-12 season for the Pens, and he definitely wasn’t on the radar.

The club’s organizational depth was definitely tested with all the injuries, and they generally held the fort until everyone filed back into the lineup- in large thanks to the MVP season of Evgeni Malkin and some very sturdy goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury who played in 36 of the 44 regular season games in 2012.

9. Uneventful trade deadline
General Manager Ray Shero hasn’t been afraid to shuffle major pieces around the deadline. He’s made deals over the years for the Pens to add Chris Kunitz, Gary Roberts, James Neal, Hal Gill, Marian Hossa and Alex Ponikarovsky on or near the NHL trade deadline, always giving the team a boost as they head towards the playoffs. 2012 was much quieter as Shero elected not to do anything at all and bank on Sidney Crosby’s return to health as the major piece to add. Partly because the prices were high- checking center Paul Gaustad went from Buffalo to Nashville for a first round pick- and with many teams trying to make the playoffs, there weren’t as many pure sellers as in the past. So rather than give up too much or risk getting not the right fit, Shero held tight.

In the end Crosby was able to return and the team was about as healthy as can be after an 82 game marathon, but some of the established players didn’t have a very good playoff series with Philly and the Pens suffered their third straight playoff series loss. It remains to be seen if Shero will chose a similar path next time (you know, assuming there is a “next time”) but it’s hard to imagine in a shortened 2012-13 season that a lot of teams would be interested in trading away NHL-level talent since every team will be looking to make the playoffs in such a short season.

Tomorrow we'll look at moments 5-8 of the year. As a hint: free agency, statues, the race down to the wire with the New York Rangers for the Atlantic Division (and top 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs).