A Stanley Cup hangover was acceptable in 2009-10. Some would even say expected. With little roster turnover and two Art Ross winners still in the lineup the Penguins would be back in the Finals in 2010-11 though—or so was thought.
Instead, Pittsburgh bowed out a round earlier than they did in the previous year. The team was decimated with injuries. Evgeni Malkin underachieved once again and Marc-Andre Fleury struggled early.
The Penguins recovered to post 106 points and the second most wins in the NHL. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t win when it mattered most. This season the Penguins sport perhaps their finest team since the lockout and should once again finish with 100+ points.
Pittsburgh boasts eight 20-goal scorers, two scoring champions, and one Rocket Richard winner in their lineup. Scoring has never been an issue as only three teams have scored more goals over the last four years than the Penguins. With or without Crosby, Pittsburgh should once again finish near the top of the NHL in goals for.
Evgeni Malkin is a trendy pick to win the Hart and Art Ross Trophies this season. He was invincible in the preseason and started the regular season with an assist and shootout winner last night. He has looked patient and relaxed through the exhibition games—two traits the Russian superstar had not flashed in the past two seasons.
The biggest reason why a change should be expected in Malkin’s game is because for the first time in two years he is healthy. He will also skate with the best linemates he has ever had and his off-season workout regiment suggests that he is primed for a big year. Add in power-play specialist Steve Sullivan, and Malkin’s man-advantage points are sure to increase.
One of Malkin’s linemates could be James Neal. I have long suggested that the two will play together and last night the duo dazzled. Neal is a talented power forward who has the hands of finesse winger. He possesses a heavy shot and is a bull when carrying the puck.
Neal has scored at least 20 goals in each of his first three seasons and is on pace fore 82 this year. Jokes aside, the Canadian winger should be a lock to hit the 30-goal plateau. He has the power to bang home loose pucks in front and the skill to finish a Malkin feed or work for his own shot. Many believe that Neal is simply a goal-scorer. But it will be evident early that he is capable of creating for his teammates.
Malkin’s other linemate could be Jordan Staal. Traditionally heralded as a defensive-offenseman, Staal posted 29 goals in his rookie season playing alongside Malkin. Part of his statistical decline could be the fact that his offensive duty for the past three seasons has been to feed Tyler Kennedy the puck.
Staal is a physical forward who works well along the boards. He hasn’t regressed since his rookie season which means that the three-time 20 goal scorer has 30 goal capability. He is also a distributor.
More so than a goal-scorer, Staal is a playmaker. He possess the puck until he draws two defenders or a teammate works to get open in front. If not for injury last season he would have posted 37 assists. Those projections were prorated from his 19 assists—many of which were tallied without Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Matt Cooke, or Alex Kovalev on his line.
Steve Sullivan was a shrewd off-season addition for the Penguins. He is a noted scorer and will likely play on the top line with Crosby. For as much recognition as Sullivan gets for his gaudy goal numbers, praise for his playmaking talents are often overlooked. Many fans saw last night how much of a distributor Sullivan can be.
The off-season signing of Sullivan can be compared in many ways to the pick-up of Bill Guerin in 2009. Sullivan is one year younger than Guerin was when he came but they produced similar numbers in their time before Pittsburgh.
Guerin posted five goals and 12 assists in 17 games with the Penguins after the 2009 trade deadline. Prorated, those numbers swell to 24 goals and 58 points. Between the Penguins and New York Islanders in the 2008-09 season, he tallied 21 goals and 48 points–not bad for a 38-year-old. Those numbers are also nearly the same as Sullivan’s prorated statistics from last season (19 goals, 41 points). And, Guerin’s figures are less than Sullivan’s 2009-10 numbers.
The two are not similar in style. Sullivan is a fast, scoring winger who relies on his hands and finesse. Guerin was a power-forward who banged in front for dirty goals–although he also featured a quick, accurate wrist shot. Still, when analyzing Pittsburgh’s and Sullivan’s situations, a comparison to Guerin is relevant.
The former Predator is twice a 30-goal scorer and a solid two-way player. While he does have a history of injuries, a healthy Sullivan is extremely valuable to the Penguins. His last full healthy season was in 2009-10, where he led the Predators with 51 points. The Canadian winger only potted 17 goals that year. Part of his low total is due to the fact that Nashville’s top three centers–David Legwand, Jason Arnott, and Marcel Goc–manufactured just 72 assists between them. His new possible center, Sidney Crosby, accumulated 84 assists by himself in his Art Ross winning 2006-07 season.
Pittsburgh’s newest addition is also noted for his powerplay expertise. Sullivan recorded 13 man-advantage goals in 2005-06 and is a shoe-in to fill the left half-wall on the Penguins powerplay.
Chris Kunitz was on pace for a career year in 2010-11 before injuries—both Sid’s and his own—derailed his season. His .34 goals per game average was the best of his career and half of his season was spent without no. 87 on his line. Seven of his tallies last year did come on the powerplay. He may not get the same opportunity this season with a healthy Penguins squad. Look for the former Duck to post his usual 20-25 goals again in 2011-12.
Tyler Kennedy had a career season with 21 goals and 45 points in 2011-12. Thanks to injuries, Kennedy logged the most ice time of his career. His point totals, however, were still similar to previous years. In 2008-09 TK scored .038 points per minute. He production dropped dramatically to .03 2009-10 before surging up to .039 points-per-minute last year. The statistics indicate that in order for Kennedy to be a 20-goal scorer, he must log over 1,100 minutes–a feat he has not accomplished with Malkin and Crosby in the lineup. Projecting another 20+ goal season for TK probably isn’t wise.
Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Mark Letestu will all look to bring the secondary scoring.
Cooke showed his value last night. Only Crosby is better at deflecting pucks in front of the net. When he is determined to produce and not pester, Cookie is a talented hockey player. His four goals over 13 postseason games in 2009-10 show what a scoring threat he can be. Don’t be surprised if the 33-year-old scores more goals then Dupuis and Kennedy.
Dupuis is a consistent as they come. Four of his 17 goals last season where shorthanded–good for the fourth best total in the NHL. He also tallied the first marker of the game four times. Together, those eight goals make up half of his total. Many will agree that scoring in either of these fashions substantially increases the chances of winning.
The French-Canadian also rarely saw time on the powerplay. Evening out that fact is that he played almost half of a season on Sidney Crosby’s line. Sid’s effect on the 32-year-old hardly made a difference though, as Dupuis scored only eight of his goals while skating alongside the superstar. The other Fifty-three percent of his goals were accumulated with rotating linemates.
Letestu is no slouch either. He tallied 14 goals last season and was impressive in the faceoff circle. Add in the fact that he is a defensive presence and the 26-year-old appears to be the perfect third-line center.
Perhaps Dustin Jeffrey will pitch in after he recovers from a torn ACL. Averaged over a full season, his 2010-11 figures swell to 23 goals and 39 points. Only one Penguin scored more goals last year––and he is widely recognized as the best player in the sport.
Pittsburgh’s offensive production dropped off significantly without Crosby last season. Remember that Malkin, Kunitz, Cooke, Letestu, and Jeffrey all missed time in the second half of the season too though. Sid is not expected to miss much time this year, but if he does, the offense should be fine without him.
Kris Letang will be in the Norris conversation this season. He is the Penguins best offensive-defenseman and defensive-defenseman. His physicality has increased in recent years and his game improved because of it.
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, he 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.
It should be noted that Letang’s best performance of the year came in game seven against the Lightning.
One reason why Letang is able to jump in the rush so often is because of his defensive partner. Olympic defenseman Brooks Orpik will be missed while he is recovering from surgery. The 6’2″ blueliner led the Penguins in hits last season and is a force in front of the Penguins net.
Orpik worked on his puckhandling last year and became a reliable player with the biscuit. While not perfect, his ability to outlet is improved. The American Olympian had perhaps his finest season as a professional last year. He won’t be improved from 2010-11, but he is capable of playing at the same level.
The most puzzling player on the defensive squad is Paul Martin. He is the second most skilled player on the unit but lacks focus. He often extends himself beyond his offensive capabilities and his pinches and turnovers have become a problem. Martin is also too anxious when defending in his own zone. He chases the puck and drifts away from his man more than occasionally. Still, the Minnesota native is effective. If he can focus and understand his limitations, Dan Bylsma’s system could benefit him tremendously.
Zbynek Michalek blocked 33 more shots than any player in the NHL in 2008-09. His numbers have dropped since then, but his consistency hasn’t. Michalek led the Penguins in blocked shots last season and was the best defender on the team outside of Letang. He does not miss an assignment in his zone and he does not get beat one-on-one. Michalek also is often left covering for Martin.
Despite his tag as a defensive-defenseman, the Czech native can outlet the puck effectively. He also has a cannon of a shot. While he won’t lead the Penguins in defensive scoring anytime soon, don’t be surprised if Michalek crests 30 points this season.
The final defensive paring of Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland are perfect for Pittsburgh.
Occasionally, Lovejoy will miss his assignment in the defensive zone. This problem, however, is rare and easily correctable. That flaw alone shouldn’t be enough to keep him off the ice.
A couple of other issues keep Lovejoy from his full potential. There are times when he panics with the puck. Although it was not a frequent occurrence, he had his share of sloppy play in the defensive zone last season.
I believe each of the last two shortcomings were a result of not playing on a regular basis. Lovejoy was not always comfortable on the ice. Obviously, the more ice time you get, the more comfortable you will be. If he sees the ice on the a nightly basis these issues will disappear—as was the case at the end of last season.
Finally, Lovejoy lacks aggression. While puckhandling is not his strength, the blueliner is skilled enough to become a solid offensive-defenseman. At the end of last season–when his ice time hit a season high–Lovejoy evaded defenders and worked well in the offensive zone when carrying the puck. He is able to create space by combining his skill, craftiness, and size. For an undrafted free agent, he is supremely talented. Lovejoy is one defenseman on the Penguins who needs to take more risks.
Many are quick to point out Lovejoy’s faults, but there are three things he does extremely well.
He is a superb defenseman. As I stated earlier, there are rare occasions when he blows an assignment. How many of those times was he covering for defensive partner Deryk Engelland though? Engelland is a big hitter who often finds himself out of position. As a result, Lovejoy is left covering for the Penguin tough guy. If he was afforded the opportunity to play with a Michalek or Letang, Lovejoy’s defensive game would look even better. He is strong in front of the net and clears out the crease. His physicality in the corners has increased and his defensive zone play is exceptional. Lovejoy can flat out play defense.
Secondly, Lovejoy is a playmaker from the blueline. His vision is vastly underrated. Nobody will mistake Lovejoy for Letang, but he does deserve credit for his offensive zone creativity.
Lastly, he possesses an hard, accurate shot. There were times last season when Lovejoy was used on the powerplay. Part of the reason was because the Pens PP was so poor, but the other part was because he can put the puck on net consistently.
Overall, the Penguins defensive crew is one of the best in the NHL. An aggressive offense and attitude of team defense make the unit even better.
Fleury started the 2010-11 season in poor fashion. He bounced back to secure 36 wins and three shutouts. He was one of the NHL’s best goalies over the final four months of the season and nearly stole the first round series for the team.
Last night, Flower picked up where he left off. He finished with his best goals-against-average and save-percentage ever last season and will look to build on that this year.
One intangible that Fleury possesses is clutch performance. He plays his best in the biggest situations. The Canadian Olympian makes crucial saves when he has to. Henrik Lundqvist is the only goalie in the Atlantic Division better than Fleury.
Backup Brent Johnson proved he was a capable replacement last season. Johnson, a former starter for the Blues, is an aggressive goaltender. His style works well with the Penguins because of the team’s superb defense. Johnson often challenges shooters and overplays one side of the net. This is by design. His defense takes care of the passing and in return Johnson gives the shooter no angle. If Fleury were to stumble again this year, the Penguins have a great backup ready to play.
Losing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal for half of 2010-11 meant that the Penguins lost three top-two NHL draft selections. Together, the trio comprised 37% of the team’s total salary.
Still, the Penguins finished with 106 points.
The reason why? Jack Adams award winner Dan Bylsma.
“Under Bylsma, the Penguins boasted the game’s best penalty-killing unit, were tied for sixth in goals allowed and still ended up tied for the Atlantic Division lead (they lost to Philadelphia on a tiebreaker).
Bylsma was honored for his work with the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year and continues to be one of the brightest young coaching minds in the business, working constantly on his own communication skills and innovations to the game. It’s early, of course, but it’s hard to imagine Bylsma won’t be in the mix to lead the U.S. team at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi if the NHL returns to the tournament.”
A quick look at the grades makes it seem as though I am a homer—an understandable point, but not a valid one.
Pittsburgh finished with the second most wins in the NHL despite playing only one full game last season with Crosby, Malkin, and Staal in the lineup together. Fleury was in Vezina form and Bylsma won the organization’s first ever Jack Adams award. Pittsburgh’s penalty killing finished first in the league and the team finished with the sixth lowest goals-against-per-game. The powerplay issue was addressed with the off-season acquisition of Sullivan and Neal will once again play with a world-class center.
Where is the weakness?
An opening night win over the Stanley Cup favorite in Vancouver showed just how determined this team is. The Penguins might not finish as the East’s top seed, but anything less than a Stanley Cup appearance will be a surprise.