Every offseason, fans, team management, and the media ask the same question of their favorite team; did their team improve their chances at lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June of the next season? In hindsight, the Penguins had an extremely bright outlook at the beginning of last season with GM Shero quickly seeking to fix the largest weakness made apparent in the 2010 playoffs, the defense, with the signings of free agents Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. If in the pre-season last year, somebody had told me that the Penguins would have acquired James Neal, Matt Niskanen, and Alexei Kovalev for Alex Goligoski and a 7th round pick, I would have probably asked when the parade would be held. The point is that the Penguins were a contender at the beginning of last season and I believe that GM Shero has made minor moves to make sure this team is competitive come late-May.

The Penguins Offseason so far:

The Departed:
• Max Talbot
• Mike Rupp
• Eric Godard
• Chris Conner
• Mike Comrie
• Alexei Kovalev

Newcomers:
• Steve Sullivan
• Jason Williams
• Steve McIntyre
• Alex Picard (D)
• Boris Valabik (D)

Staying Put:
• Tyler Kennedy
• Pascal Dupuis
• Craig Adams
• Arron Asham

To repeat one of the most clichéd phrases in recent Pittsburgh sports memory, the Penguins biggest additions next season will be the return of a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Additionally, starting the year with a healthy Jordan Staal will also help give a more tangible vision of the potential of this team. Although Shero and Bylsma have yet to give much indication of the lines come October, here’s what I believe the lines will be opening night:

Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Neal – Malkin – Sullivan
Cooke – Staal – Kennedy
Asham – Letestu – Adams
Extras: Jeffrey, McIntyre, Williams

Orpik – Letang
Michalek – Martin
Niskanen – Engelland
Lovejoy

Fleury
Johson

So after looking at that lineup, I get the feeling that the Penguins are poised for another run at the Stanley Cup. Although they may not be the wingers that most Pittsburghers would choose to play alongside generational talents like Sidney Crosby, these two gritty and speedy wingers allow Crosby to “get to his game,” and were a big reason Crosby was having a career year statistically prior to his concussions. It would seem that Malkin will also benefit from having wingers who play a similar style to those he had on his wings during his most successful years with Malone, Sykora, and Fedotenko. Neal will provide the power forward role that Malkin’s line has been missing since Malone’s departure, while Sullivan, if healthy, can still be a legitimate NHL sniper that will be getting open space and shots. The “best third line in hockey” will hopefully get a chance to stay a third line this year, as they were thrust in much more prominent roles due to injuries. Between the 4th liners and the fringe NHLers, GM Shero has provided ample combinations of players for Bylsma to use to better match-up against different opposition styles next year.

The defense really hasn’t changed much from last year, which is a tremendous thing, especially if Kris Letang returns to the production we saw from him at the beginning of the year. This defense has the potential to not only be high-scoring, but also to be one of the best defensive corps in the league. If they play similar to last year, Fleury’s life will continue to be made easier, meaning that he’ll hopefully be able to continue his strong play from this past year.

If you ask any Pens fan what last year’s biggest weakness was, your most likely response is that they never seen a less lethal man-advantage in their hockey fandom. Failure present in the regular season continued through the playoffs, ultimately resulting in an early exit by the hard-working bunch. Although you’ll find some fans and media who will blame the lack of production on the powerplay on the injuries of Malkin and Crosby, but the powerplay was still relatively struggling prior to either of their injuries. As he did in the 2010 offseason, Shero made the signings with the potential to fix any major holes in the lineup with the additions of Steve Sullivan and Jason Williams. Although they are older than Penguins fans may like, the addition of these players, with significant powerplay experience can provide the veteran powerplay leadership the Penguins have been lacking. Even though Jason Williams may spend more time in the AHL or in the press box than in the NHL, the Penguins could always call on him if the powerplay is struggling or if the injury bug bites the team again.

If the Penguins can stay healthy, get Malkin going close to his 2009 production pace, and get the powerplay going, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the scariest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.
Let’s go Pens!