We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Piitsburgh Penguins.
Team M.O.: These guys went from pretenders to champions since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin managed to breathe life into the team. Since their championship season, however, you can't seem to feel that they may have taken a step back in certain ways. Sure guys like Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik are still around, but there's been a hell of a lot of turn over and you have to wonder, will the new faces be able to have immediate chemistry?
Last Season: Fourth in the Eastern Conference, where they took their championship defense to the Conference Semifinals before being eliminated by the giant-killing Montreal Canadiens.
Offense: Though the talents of the two players will always be compared, Crosby's emerged as the more matured and complete player between he and Malkin. However, Malkin's overall ability is higher and if he's ever going to push to be the "Number 1" guy in Pittsburgh, he's gotta embrace the two concepts that make Crosby the leader. Not too far behind them is Jordan Staal, who's the better two-way player than those two, but he's going into the season on the shelf with injury. Around them, Chris Kunitz battled injuries last season but he's still got a good enough blend of skills and toughness to land a scoring role. Mike Comrie took a short contract to revitalize his career and will be expected to fulfill the scoring needs that Pittsburgh needs addressed.
Since they have two of the best offensive players in the game, the team's opted to focus the rest of their roster on defensive-minded forwards instead of rounding out their "top-six" per se. Among them, Arron Asham defects from the Philadelphia Flyers and gives the team a solid two-way player who brings the toughness. He'll be complemented by Michael Rupp and Matt Cooke, who fulfill the same role except Cooke's a bit more of a "gashole" on the ice. Pascal Dupuis put up his best numbers since his career season in 2002-03, but will he have enough offensive consistency to help the Penguins' secondary scoring? Tyler Kennedy still has a lot of potential, overall, but he needs to put together a full-season to warrant more press over his hockey playing abilities. Maxime Talbot battled injuries last season as well, but when he's on he's one of the best penalty-killers a team could ask for. Waiver-wire castoff Craig Adams found a new lease on life in Pittsburgh and has parlayed his opportunity with them into a solid penalty-killing role. Eric Godard is the resident enforcer and he ain't half bad at the fisticuffs either. Brett Sterling, Eric Tangradi, and Nick Johnson are some of the players who will be in competition to round out the forward corps.
The team doesn't have much cap space to go out and grab another scoring forward, so they'll need guys to come from within an take the spot. They have two talented centers to put them with but as the Alex Ponikarovsky experiment showed, not everyone can generate chemistry with Sid the Kid.
Defense: Paul Martin comes over from free agency and while he suffered a broken arm last season with the New Jersey Devils, he should help regain some of the offense they lost when Sergei Gonchar took off and maybe has better two-way ability that he did too. Zbynek Michalek comes over from the Phoenix Coyotes and gives the club a solid shot-blocking defender who excels in defensive situations. Kris Letang wasn't as productive last season but still gives the team a solid defender with offensive presence. Brooks Orpik is quite delightful as a shutdown defender; perhaps the team will put him on a line with Michalek. Alex Goligoski provides the team with power-play specialst while Ben Lovejoy will graduate to the NHL as a third-pairing defender. Deryk Engelland, Corey Potter, and Robert Bortuzzo figure to be in the mix for the seventh spot.
All and all, not too bad. They'll have to remain healthy to be effective but the talent is there.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury remains a bright starting goaltender but he seems to lose his effectiveness the more he plays. Brent Johnson's not necessarily starter material, but perhaps he can get 25 starts and relieve Fleury on his off-games? John Curry took a backflip backwards last season, which has opened the door for Mattias Modig to challenge him for the Number 3 spot. All and all though, the goaltending's solid enough to be competitive.
Management: Coach Dan Bylsma is one of the brightest coaches in the league (but considering that he's from Michigan, we're entirely biased!) G.M. Ray Shero signed a 5-year extension but one has to wonder if people will be as optimistic about that deal after the end of the season and the subsequent off-season, where seven forwards are set for unrestricted free agency.
Prediction: Third in the Atlantic Division and on the playoff bubble.
From a defensive perspective, these guys are alright. From an offensive perspective, however, they are somewhat short on players who can consistently produce (especially up-front). The team stands a chance if they can remain healthy and consistent, but if either Crosby or Malkin go down with injury, there will be a chance for them to fall (and should both go down, expect a lottery pick.)