Part 4: Centers Of Attention
Editor’s Note: The following story has been written by our friends Tony Ferrante of The Confluence of the Three Rivers and Sean Leahy of Going Five Hole. Please take a moment to check out their excellent web sites.
The writers were asked to discuss the Pittsburgh Penguins’ center depth.
I think that all three Penguins centers have something to prove this coming year.
Last season saw the Sidney Crosby hype machine take a few hits because of his ankle injury, and his quasi-rival Alex Ovechkin took full advantage of it. In addition, Crosby’s intensity and work ethic surely are not going to be satisfied with the Pens’ trip to the Cup Finals. It also remains to be seen who his new linemate(s) will be, so that could be a key issue as well. Look for Crosby to regain his scoring title this year.
Evgeni Malkin seems intent on proving the critics of his performance in the Finals, which was later revealed to be due to illness, were wrong. Also, according to a recent article, now that he has signed his contract extension, he appears to be focused on proving to the team and the fans that “the club doesn’t pay me for nothing” (translation). Hopefully, Malkin’s performance during Crosby’s injury showed Malkin that he can totally dominate a game with regularity. We could have two Penguins on top of the scoring race this year.
Jordan Staal’s goal production certainly took a big dip, going from 29 goals in his rookie year to only 12 this past season. However, although his goal scoring decreased, his defensive performance certainly did not. The big issue for Staal is whether Michel Therrien will place Staal on one of the two scoring lines, or keep him centering the third line to provide that stability. In addition, it’s also no secret that Staal has yet to receive a contract extension, unlike his teammates Marc-Andre Fleury, Crosby and Malkin. And while the coaching staff and ownership certainly recognize his contributions, a big contract may not be in his future. While I would highly doubt the Penguins would allow Staal to slip out of their grasp due to a RFA contract offer next year, he should have plenty of motivation to raise his game up even higher.
If there’s one position, besides goaltender, that the Penguins are pretty much set at, it’s down the middle at center. Having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal as your top three centers certainly is a luxury most teams highly desire.
Malkin and Staal are also versatile in that head coach Michel Therrien can put them on the wing when needed. Whether it’s Malkin playing with Crosby or Staal with either of the team’s top two centers. While general manager Ray Shero may prefer to develop Staal at the center position, there are times when the Penguins will need to generate some offense if they’re in the funk. Having someone as skilled and defensively responsible as Jordan is a nice bonus for the lineup.
So what can we expect this season from the trio of centermen?
There are many pundits who question how much of an effect Sid’s high-ankle sprain from last season might have on his production this year. I don’t think it’ll be any distraction, as Sid played every playoff game, which, as we all know, is a grind, featuring games every other day as well as being notable for much more physical play than the regular-season. We haven’t heard about any issues this summer with Crosby’s ankle, so I think it’s safe we can throw that out the window.
Sid will benefit from being healthy this season as well as having another year in the National Hockey League under his belt. It’s frightening to think he’s still only 21 years of age and will continue improving year after year.
The big question Pens fans had in the off-season is who will play on the wings with Crosby. Many firmly believe that we’ll be seeing Miroslav Satan and either Janne Pesonen or Ruslan Fedotenko receiving passes from Sid this season. Both Satan and Fedotenko are trying to turn their careers around and who better to play alongside to do that than Crosby.
A year ago, we saw Evgeni Malkin develop into an offensive leader on this hockey team. Once Sidney Crosby went down in January, Malkin put up a Hart Trophy-caliber season in his absence and helped lead the Penguins to the second spot in the Eastern Conference and finished six-points behind Alexander Ovechkin for the Art Ross Trophy.
The playoffs were another story for the 22-year old Russian. Through the first two rounds and the first game against Philadelphia, Malkin amassed 8 goals and 9 assists in just 10 games. From Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals until the end of the Stanley Cup Finals, he disappeared, managing a mere 2 goals and 3 assists in the Pens final ten playoff games.
Where did his game go?
Many believe he suffered some sort of injury after a monstrous hit from Mike Richards in Game 1 of the ECF. If you remember, moments later, as he was slowly getting back, Malkin took a Sergei Gonchar pass at the blue line and ripped a 15-foot slapshot by Martin Biron. After that hit and goal, Malkin’s play was not the same.
Now, with Crosby back and linemate Ryan Malone gone to Tampa Bay, Malkin will again be the number two go-to-guy behind the Penguins captain. We can assume he’ll be the same offensive weapon as before, but can he do what he did last season? We know Petr Sykora will be back on Malkin’s wing, but who will assume the other? Janne Pesonen? Ruslan Fedotenko? Miro Satan? Jordan Staal? Pascal Dupuis? That other wing is important, as we saw the kind of magical chemistry that developed with the Malkin-Sykora-Malone line. If the Penguins are going to have any kind of success this coming season, they will need to develop the same chemistry they had last year with their new signings.
After a very surprising rookie year in 2006-07, when he became quite the shorthanded specialist (7 goals), Jordan Staal’s point total took a 14-point dip last year, though he became a very important defensive-minded player for the Penguins. His long reach and strong skating ability make him very dangerous on the penalty kill as well as the second power-play unit.