Some of the biggest names in free agency this summer are now playing in the Atlantic Division. Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, and Mike Richards all moved from the West to the East and are looking to lead their team to a division crown.
James Neal is labeled as the key player for Pittsburgh in the preview. As was stated in the article, Neal was on pace for 29 goals last year before being traded to Pittsburgh. His slump was worsened by the fact that his replacement, defenseman Alex Goligoski, scored four more goals and nine more points than Neal after the deal was made.
In order for the Penguins to win the Eastern Conference, Neal will have to revert back to the 30-goal-pace that he was on with the Dallas Stars last season. In the 24-year-old’s defense, he went from playing with one of the NHL’s best centers in Brad Richards to skating alongside rookie Mark Letestu. Placement on a line with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Jordan Staal will certainly result in a point increase. It is even possible that he will play with both Staal and Malkin on a line together.
Outside of the obvious choices like Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury; the Penguins will need a big year from Kris Letang. The young defenseman proved to be a suitable replacement for Sergei Gonchar and was a Norris Trophy candidate at the All-Star break. Sidney Crosby’s injury hurt Letang more than any other one player on the Penguins. The All-Star defenseman only tallied one goal and nine points over his final 33 games. Before the span, Letang was on pace for 12 goals and 68 points. To put the numbers in perspective, Gonchar’s finest season with the Pens was 2006-07, when he totaled 13 goals and 67 points.
Letang, as much as Neal, will be counted upon to keep the Penguins ahead of the Flyers and Rangers this year.