8 Storylines for the 2011-2012 Season
Entering the last week of a summer that has felt like the Penguins haven’t played a game in ages, this off-season, although minor in major moves for the summer, has left me wondering what the future holds for our Pittsburgh Penguins.
1) Sidney Crosby’s Health: Big shock, right? This is undoubtedly the most important remaining issue for the Penguins. Obviously, the most important thing is Crosby’s long-term well-being, but the Penguins could look like a very different team depending on whether or not Sid is ready to go. The top-six could look considerably different depending on whether Sid is good to go.
With Crosby = Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis, Neal – Malkin – Sullivan
Without Crosby =Neal – Malkin – Sullivan, Kunitz – Staal – Kennedy
Although Malkin and Staal are not a bad 1-2 punch at center, having Crosby, Malkin, Staal as a 1-2-3 punch at center could be the difference come April. Without Crosby, the Penguins will have to once again rely on their solid defense and goaltending and the return of the player who’s the subject of the next storyline, Evgeni Malkin.
2) Which Malkin will we see? As if losing the best player in the NHL for the rest of the season in January wasn’t bad enough, the Penguins also lost the services of Evgeni Malkin for the second half of the season. The Penguins have done a terrific job this season highlighting the rehabilitation and training of Evgeni Malkin this offseason, but the question isn’t if Malkin will return this season, but what Evgeni Malkin will we see?
In the past 4 seasons, we have see two different incarnations of “Geno.” The 2008-2009 version, which led the league in points and won the Conn Smythe in the 2009 Stanley Cup run or the player who doesn’t seem to quite be able to play at that same level every year.
In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Malkin played 164 games and compiled a total of 219 points, but in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, Malkin only played 110 games and scored 114 points. In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Malkin averaged 1.34 points per game, while in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, he only averaged 1.04 points per game, a significant drop-off from the previous two years. Throughout that time, Malkin has seen a fair share of linemates, including Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora, Max Talbot, Jordan Staal, Ruslan Fedotenko, Alex Ponikarovsky, Eric Tangradi, and Mike Comrie. It appears that this year, Shero has found two wingers that could provide Malkin with the comfort that he experienced during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 campaigns.
3) Is James Neal the answer? When considering what Geno to expect this year, one of the most important factors in the success of the Penguin’s second line is the ability of James Neal to score goals. Last year, Neal had 1 goal in 20 regular season games and 1 goal in 7 playoff games. Not exactly the type of production that Penguin’s fans had hoped for, but without a playmaking center, which Neal had in Dallas with Brad Richards, the question becomes was it Neal underachieving or was it a lack of scoring chances for Neal to seize. As usual, James Neal spent the off-season working out with former NHLer and fitness guru Gary Roberts, so Penguin’s fans should at least be able to expect a well-conditioned and dedicated player.
4) Kennedy’s role on this team: Last season, Tyler Kennedy proved that he has the potential to be a legitimate top-six player in the NHL, as he stepped into the gaping holes left when the injury bug struck the Penguins. Kennedy scored a total of 21 goals and 45 points in 80 games last season, which earned him a new contract this year with the Penguins. Where does Kennedy fit on this team? A team that’s struggled for years trying to find scoring wingers for one of our two world-class centers, but is Tyler Kennedy that player or is he better left as a member of the “Best Third Line in the NHL?” Although its possible Kennedy could be the long lost scoring winger for either of the top two lines, I believe its more likely he remains with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke, facing the opponent’s top lines, while hopefully providing some offense.
5) The Powerball POWERPLAY!!! Usually, when a team gets a man-advantage, it’s perceived as a good thing, but not in Pittsburgh, where fans collectively cringe when the arm with the orange armband is raised. Last year, the Penguins ranked 25th overall in the league with a whopping 15.8% conversion rate. Only Nashville, Edmonton, New Jersey, Columbus, and Florida had a worse powerplay during the regular season, which is alarming, considering Nashville and New Jersey play a defensive style of hockey, while Columbis, Florida, and Edmonton are offensively challenged. Even with Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins powerplay was struggling at the beginning of the year and it was only exacerbated by their loss to injuries. The Penguins picked up a right-handed powerplay specialist in Steve Sullivan and a well-experienced point-man in winger Jason Williams, who has seen significant time on powerplay units, but will most likely spend the majority of the season in the minors. Will these players make a legitimate difference on the powerplay?
6) Which minor leaguer will step up? In the past, we have seen the likes of Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang, and Mark Letestu work their way through the system to find a home in the NHL. Who will step up this year? Last year, when injuries struck the Penguins, the team called up a multitude of minor-leaguers who got a shot to prove their worth to the Penguins. Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey, Deryk Engelland, Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Andrew Hutchinson, Corey Potter, Chris Conner, Brett Sterling, and Joe Vitale all saw time as members of the big-league club. This year, with the expected return of players lost to injuries last year, who is in the pipeline that could make a difference. I believe that there are 3 players that could make a potential impact in the system, due to weaker spots in the lineup. Simon Despres could step into what is considered a defensively and offensively challenged third-pairing on the defense in place of Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy, or Deryk Engelland. Also, Nick Johnson and Eric Tangradi will most likely get a chance at some point to make the Penguins as a top-six winger.
7) Will the past haunt the Pens? Although the Penguins did not lose many players this off-season to free agency, they did lose two members that have been an integral part of the locker-room. The Penguins will now have to face the tenacious Mike Rupp and Maxime Talbot 6 times a year as members of Atlantic division rivals. Arguably the biggest story this offseason was the potential return of a former Art Ross and Hart winner and former “dying alive” Penguin, Jaromir Jagr to the NHL. After almost a month of non-stop #jagrwatch, the city of Pittsburgh was hooked on the idea of “Mario Jr.” returning to the Penguins to end things the proper way and fix his legacy in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for Penguins fans who were hoping for a reunion tour, Jagr chose to go to cross-state bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, which should make for some interesting matchups throughout the season. Will these former Penguins return to haunt their old team this season? In my opinion, it is not very likely.
8) The Atlantic Division Every year it seems the Atlantic Division find a way to constantly improve around the Penguins. The Philadelphia Flyers went through one of the biggest shake-ups in franchise history trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but managed to bolster their biggest weakness by adding Ilya Bryzgalov. The Rangers found a playmaking center to play alongside Marian Gaborik and the Devils hired a new head coach which they hope will help continue their improvement at the end of last season. The Islanders are still pretty much the Islanders, but could gain the services of Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabakov, which would help provide a solid goaltending tandem for the lowly Isles.