The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are finally back on the ice, and after spending a full summer with Lord Stanley the obvious question is can the Penguins repeat? Waiting a whole summer for the flightless birds to get back on the ice was agonizing, and the free agent pickups, Olympic tryouts and 99 losses by the Pirates made it all the longer. The Penguins journey as defending Stanley Cup champions will not be an easy one, but it will be a journey that team owner Mario Lemieux may be able to help the players with just as he did in the Cup Finals.
Among the biggest news of the off-season was the departures of Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Petr Sykora, and Miroslav Satan. Acquisitions of role players were made to offset the casualties of free agency however. Defensive specialist Jay McKee, rugged center Mike Rupp, and journeyman goaltender Brent Johnson all joined Pittsburgh for the defense of their championship. The most important addition to this years team though is that of Alex Goligoski. Penguins fans should hope the 24-year-old defensemen can grow into a stud playmaker better than he can grow his hair. This years team is better than last years, but does that mean another Stanley Cup Championship is on the way?
When looking at the aspect of repeating there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
1.) No team has gone to the Stanley Cup Finals three years in a row since the Edmonton Oilers did it from 1982-1985. Obviously playing into June and starting back up in October takes its toll on a team, then again this is not your ordinary team. The amazing thing about this team is that they have the ability to defy all odds, such as displayed by winning game seven of the Finals in hostile Detroit.
2.) Last season Pittsburgh played a significant portion of the schedule without all-star defensemen Sergie Gonchar, he is back this year and the defensive unit is undoubtedly stronger. However, much like last year the Penguins are missing a key part of their team in Stanley Cup hero Maxime Talbot. After providing two goals in game seven of the Finals last year, the aggressive grinder underwent shoulder surgery in off-season and is expected to miss four to five months.
3.) There is bad news for the Penguins. Gonchar, Bill Guerin, and Ruslan Fedotenko are on the down-hill sides of their careers and may very well have contributed all they can to this team. The NHL is different from other leagues in the way that players can become significantly worse from one season to the next–just ask Sykora or Satan. However there is bad news for the rest of the league. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Marc-Andre Fleury are only getting better.Perhaps the most frightening fact for Eastern Conference foes though is that the oldest of the group is only 24-years-old.
Certainly there are other aspects of the Pittsburgh organization that need to be examined, but the combination of young talent and the experience will be a lethal one that most teams only dream of having.
One area that cannot be overlooked heading into the new season is that second year coach Dan Bylsma will have a full year to coach the Penguins. Through Bylsma’s 54 games the Penguins have averaged just over 3.5 goals per game, which if averaged through one whole season would rank near the top of the list. A combination of high aggression and physical play seem to serve Pittsburgh the best, as the days of being consistently outshot seem like a distant memory now. Perhaps the most assuring fact that the Penguins are in good hands though, is that Pittsburgh was already able to win a Stanley Cup after only having Bylsma for 1/3 of the season. With a full year ahead of him, and a team fully behind him, Byslma could lead the Penguins to legendary status.
Some changes are in store for Penguins fans as the 2009 season gets underway. These changes will include a significant decrease in hurling the remote through the television after a Hal Gill defensive end turnover; a gasp of astonishment that the backup goalie will play because he is good–not just a favorite player of the coach; and finally a strange feeling of excitement during the games, knowing that your team is capable of outshooting the opponent. There are still flaws though, the least of which not being an obvious lack of skill surrounding Crosby. If the Penguins want to be the kings of the Eastern Conference again one of two things are going to need to happen:
1.) Pittsburgh trades away minor league talent for rent-a-players near the trading deadline, or
2.) Penguins prospects like Luca Caputi and Eric Tangradi provide the necessary skill to surround the Pittsburgh captian.
Both Caputi and Tangradi are both enormously talented and all but assured of NHL success, but do not look for them to provide the spark the Penguins need to return to glory. If either of these players were ready to fill the role needed by the Penguins they would have made the team at the beginning of the year. Instead look for a deadline deal that will provide Crosby or Malkin a winger with scoring touch. Since the NHL lockout in 2004-2005 Talbot, Fedotanko, Guerin, and Chris Kunitz have combined for only three 25+ goal seasons. However, in 2008 when the Penguins acquired Marian Hossa he tallied 12 goals and totaled 26 points in 20 playoff games while skating with Crosby–6 goals and 10 points better than his second best playoff high to date.
If there is one area where the Penguins are better this year it is at goalie. Fleury has not so quietly made his way into the elite crop of NHL goalies by winning two Eastern Conference championships and a Stanley Cup. Fleury and his ability to steal games is what separates the Penguins from other Stanley Cup contenders like Detroit, Chicago, and Washington. The addition of Johnson as a backup should not be overlooked either, as he should get ample time in net leaving Fleury fresh for the playoffs.
Despite their hot start do not expect the Penguins to run away with the division thanks to the Olympic break and overall strength of the Eastern Conference. Crosby and the Penguins will look to defend their championship, but that will be a tough task seeing as how the Atlantic Division is even deeper this year with the additions of Chris Pronger, Marian Gaborik, and John Tavares. Pittsburgh will be challenged by the Rangers for the division title, but this team will not falter when it comes time for the playoffs.