This is, by far, one of my favorite parts of the year. Welcome to our annual Pittsburgh blog roundtable.

This year we’ve got more guests and more questions than we’ve ever had, so thanks to everyone who participated. Our list of guests is below, if you don’t visit their sites, bookmark them and make them a regular part of your hockey reading.

Pensblog Derek representing The Pensblog

Zoë representing Puck Huffers

Nick Richter representing The Pens Nation

Brian Metzer of From The Point

Tecmo of PSAMP

Eric Majeski representing

Jimmy Rixner of Pensburgh

Chris Gates of Pittsburgh Sports Depot

Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers

Sean Leahy representing Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy

And finally, we’ve got Seth Rorabaugh of Empty Netters

Without further adieu, let’s get to the questions!

1. The landscape in the Atlantic Division has drastically changed since last year. Pick one team that is going to give the Penguins the toughest run for the division title.

tPB Derek: Did you hear that? That is Double J’s music. Flyers. Pens. Six games in hell. What a battle it will be.

Puck Huffers: I get the feeling that it’s going to be the Flyers all over again, they’ll manage to win games out of nowhere and have like 5 games in hand on the Pens at the end of the year, as it always is, and something will shake loose and it will be very competitive. The makeup of the Flyers looks completely different, but their goaltending situation doesn’t cause raucous laughter anymore, and that’s a big piece of the puzzle that they’ve been missing. They might get the work ethic out of this team that they’ve always needed. Also, with the cameras following Max Talbot around, what can go wrong?

TPN Nick: The New York Rangers could possibly give the Pens fits this year. They’ve really improved during the offseason. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the elite goalies in the NHL and he seems to always play his best against the Pens. The addition of Brad Richards may re-ignite Marian Gaborik to the level he played at before coming to the Big Apple. The Rangers have a scary tandem if both Gaborik and Richards can stay healthy. The one question mark I have with the Rangers is their defensive depth; it’s something I think that will hold them back from winning the Atlantic Division title.

Brian Metzer: The landscape has definitely changed since last year, but for as much as things have changed, they have stayed the same. I believe that the Philadelphia Flyers will again be the team that will give the Penguins the most headaches this season. Yes they did subtract the likes of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but they have grafted a number of talented players onto their roster, not to mention the home grown guys that are set to make a huge impact this season such as James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux. Former Penguin Jaromir Jagr looks like he can still be a difference maker, Wayne Simmonds has had a great pre-season and they now have a goaltender that can win games by himself. It all adds up to a fight to the finish for the Atlantic crown between the Penguins as Flyers and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.

PSAMP: Man, I picked the Islanders in last year’s roundtable and looked like a genius through the first month of the season. I really wanna pick them again so I’ll look awesome if they should defy the odds, but I gotta stick with Philly. Not that I think the Flyers will be a real threat, but the emotion of playing against 2 guys who figured prominently into every Pens championship video will be enough of a trip.

Eric Majeski: As much as I hate saying this, I think it’s going to be Philadelphia. Offensively, Danny Briere should still be good for 25-30 goals, Claude Giroux should improve on his 76 point breakout season last year, James van Riemsdyk seems primed for a breakout year of his own, and as much as we’ll all be rooting against it, I think Jaromir Jagr still has some gas left in the tank. Also, keep an eye on undrafted rookie Matt Read. Philly has a solid blueline, but a creaky, aging Chris Pronger anchors it. I questioned Mike Holmgren dropping that much money on Ilya Bryzgalov, but he immediately became the best goalie Philly’s had in the past 10-15 years.

Jimmy Rixner: The division should be wide-open, I think you could make a case for any team except the Isles to win it. For me, I’m going to be watching Philadelphia the closest. If Chris Pronger returns to his old form they’ll have one of the deepest defensive corps. They’ve finally got a legit goalie and even though their forwards are going to be an interesting chemistry experiment they’ve still got a lot of talent with the likes of Claude Giroux, JvR, Daniel Briere and, sigh, Jagr.

Chris Gates: Just going by past precedent, I always count out New Jersey and I’m always wrong. So this year I’ll switch things up and pick the Devils. I’m one that loves to say the Devils are too old and they continue to play a style that is becoming more and more ineffetive in the fast-paced, high-scoring NHL. I was right through the first half of last year and then all of a sudden New Jersey was the best team in hockey in the second half. The defensive side of things is still strong (9th in goals against, 11th on the PK last year). Guys names Kovalchuk and Parise are always scary and, who knows, maybe Sykora has som magic left in him, too. Jersey is always a pest and gives the Pens problems, so I’m going with the Devils.

Mike Colligan: The New York Rangers have the potential to be the surprise of not only the Atlantic Division, but the entire Eastern Conference. Last year John Tortorella had the Rangers playing harder than any team in the NHL, including the Penguins. They were closer to beating Washington in the playoffs than most give them credit for but bad bounces, injuries, a young defensive core, and lack of scoring punch did them in. This year the defense will have another year of valuable experience under their belts and up front they were able to add a 90 point player in Brad Richards. The duo of Richards and Marian Gaborik could be downright deadly. On the other hand, their ultimate success this season relies on the health of Marc Staal (concussion). If Staal is out for an extended period of time the Rangers are not even a playoff team – he’s that important.

Sean Leahy: The Flyers will likely once again be there at the end with the Pens, but the Rangers are always a team that gives them trouble. The addition of Brad Richards should help Marian Gaborik return his superstar form and their maturing defense will be even better the the No. 5 rank they were last season. Then there’s always Henrik Lundqvist who has a career 20-13-5 record against the Pens, including 4-1-1 last year.

Seth Rorabaugh: Devils. Last year was a hiccup for them. John MacLean was in over his head as coach and Zach Parise’s injury was crippling. With the much more qualified Peter DeBoer in charge and Parise back, the Devils will be one of the top regular season teams in the Eastern Conference again.

2. How big are the expectations on Tyler Kennedy this season and what’s your guess as to the number of goals he’ll score?

tPB Derek: The expectations are that he will play like he did at points last season. 20 goals, no more, no less and we will be more than happy.

Puck Huffers: Tyler Kennedy was clearly brought back for a reason. Last season, he scored 21 goals, a third of which were power play goals, which is. . .you know, not bad, not that I necessarily remember any one of those goals off the top of my head—it wasn’t really a season of pivotal game-breaking moments as much as “oh jeez are we going to make it out of this period without someone breaking something.” If he can be a consistent 20-30 goal-scorer, I’ll say he’s earning his keep. I’ll say 24 this year. Why not?

TPN Nick: Expectations for TK are at an all-time high. He played his best hockey late last season in a Pens uniform and Pens fans want to see him build on that. I think there are two reasons for his good play down the stretch. He was called into a bigger role thus playing more minutes and it was a chance to cash in on a bigger payday. Can he catch lightning in a bottle again? Hopefully. If he’s only in a third line role I think Kennedy is a guy that will consistently give you about 15-18 goals.

Brian Metzer: I know that there are a number of fans in the region that do not care for Tyler Kennedy, but I have always liked him as a player. I was most impressed by the way that he transitioned from being a hard worker known for fishing the puck out of the corner and swinging out into the face-off dot to spin a shot towards the net into a more complete player. He has reinvented himself as a guy who isn’t afraid to crash the net for loose pucks, can stick handle, can pick corners and now plays a more end-to-end game. Taking into consideration the role that Kennedy has played in training camp and during the exhibition games, my expectations fall somewhere in the range of 50-55-points with 25-goals.

PSAMP: Been a TK fan since day 1. It was fantastic to see him play last year like he didn’t have a care in the world. Well, after Byslma chatted him up about his production, that is. He’s gonna net 30 and Derek is gonna crap himself. This will be my “Islanders are the team to watch” insane pick for this year

Eric Majeski: It all depends on how he’s used. Head coach Dan Bylsma’s said he’s earned a spot in the top 6 so that will help his numbers, but he’s not going to be on the top power play unit. The top unit typically plays more than half of a given penalty, so he won’t have as big a chance there. I’m looking for him to maintain last year’s pace, perhaps a slight increase, so I’ll guess 23.

Jimmy Rixner: Evgeni Malkin is back, Steve Sullivan is here and James Neal is (hopefully) rejuvenated- Kennedy should be able to go back to his supporting role. Which is a good thing, because when he’s the best offensive weapon the Penguins have, they’re in trouble. TK takes a lot of fan slack, but I don’t get it. He works hard, he shoots (that’s what fans want, right?) and generally good things happen when #48 is out there. I’d expect about 15-20 goals and high motor play along the boards and in the corners that Bylsma stresses from his wingers.

Chris Gates: The expectations are high. I think TK’s a good winger, I just don’t think he’s capable of much more offense than he’s achieved. If TK can put up 20 goals again this season i think that will be great for him and for the Penguins. I think that’s his ceiling, though. Obviously, playing a top-6 role on this team should make hitting the 20-goal mark a little easier. So I’ll put Kennedy at a streaky 21 goals. There will be times we’re wondering where TK is and the rest of the time we’ll be wondering where he came from.

Mike Colligan: Kennedy ($2 million) is now one of the six highest paid forwards on the Penguins, but the cap hit is still fairly reasonable in comparison to what he could have potentially received as a UFA on the open market this summer. The pressure and expectations are definitely greater for a player like James Neal, but I would anticipate a decline in Kennedy’s numbers. Kennedy was a beneficiary of extra playing time and powerplay opportunities last season as a result of injuries and I think he’ll fall back into a secondary scoring role this year. Last season was also the first time he played more than 67 games in a season. I’ll guess Kennedy ends up with 16 goals as a result of less playing time and various injuries throughout the year.

Sean Leahy: There’s plenty to expect from Kennedy because of his career numbers last year that earned him a new contract and raise. But Kennedy took advantage of increased ice time with the number of injuries in the lineup. How much of an affect will a healthy roster have on his ice time/production this year? If I were to gauge a guess on his goals for 2011-12, I’d say he settled back in the 17-goal range.

Seth Rorabaugh: It will be 25 goals or bust for Kennedy considering the elevated ice time and role with better centers he will likely have this season.

3. What’s your expected finishing position for the Penguins with Sidney Crosby returning relatively soon AND with Crosby missing over the half the year?

tPB Derek: The quicker that Crosby returns, the better the record will be. But what people are forgetting about. It will probably take him awhile to return to form. If he misses half the season, probably looking at a 4th or 5th seed. If he comes back in November, by the time April rolls around? ksnjksnjknjknjkdsn

Puck Huffers: Crosby isn’t the only puzzle piece to the team’s season-long success—last season they finished 4th without him. If the team’s main talents stay healthy and the supporting cast is up to the challenge, I’d expect no less this year. Crosby playing most of the season healthy should keep everyone on pace for a top 4 finish, if not a division title. If Crosby misses over half the year I’d expect. . .close to the same? Top 6 finish depending on everyone else’s health. I don’t want to jinx it. . .but I said it.

TPN Nick: I can’t help but think that if Crosby returns relatively early on in the season that the Pens are winning the Atlantic and possibly the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference. Last season we witnessed what the Pens were capable of doing without their big two. They were two goals away from round 2. Getting Crosby back early certainly makes things a little easier. The Pens already have a rejuvenated and motivated Malkin back and this is one of the deepest teams I can recall the Pens ever having on both sides of the puck. If Crosby misses half of the season I still think Malkin can carry this team to a division title and 4th overall in the East.

Brian Metzer: The Penguins proved that they could be pretty successful without Sidney Crosby by the way that they went on to focus on defense and post the fourth best point total in franchise history after he was knocked from the line-up. Grafting a healthy Evgeni Malkin onto that roster will only enhance what they are able to do. I think it is safe to say that the team is a Stanley Cup Contender either way, but Crosby puts them over the top. If he plays the entire season a President’s trophy is in reach, without him, they still finish in the top four teams in the league. Crosby’s presence probably accounts for at least five more wins during a season, if not more and those will make the difference when contending for the top spot.

PSAMP: Winning the Atlantic and top-2 in the East in both scenarios. Pretend Sid isn’t even a member of these Pens so that whenever he comes back it’s just nonstop bonus. The talent level everywhere else on this team is ridiculous. Look where we got with neither of them last year.

Eric Majeski: No one else in the league has been able to add the equivalent of a healthy Malkin and Crosby to their rosters, so look out. Last year’s Pens tied Philly in points but missed out on a division title due to a tie-breaker. That was with Crosby and Malkin missing significant time. Adding a healthy, motivated Malkin into that mix alone should be enough to vault this team into the Atlantic division penthouse and make them a top 2 team in the East. Add Crosby into the mix sooner than later and this team could be a President’s Trophy winner.

Jimmy Rixner: Expectations can be tricky- even though Pittsburgh’s had some great teams recently, we’ve seen they don’t always win the division. We’ve also seen guys like Crosby, Malkin and Staal suffer some major injuries and how much that can devastate a season. I’d expect the Pens to contend to win the Atlantic, securing a top 3 seed for the playoffs. Even without Crosby, adding Malkin to that defense should make a comfortable playoff team, provided Marc-Andre Fleury can play at the high level like he did from November on last season. If Crosby could be healthy and play a majority of the season, I’d think the Pens are right up there with the Capitals competing for #1 in the East (aka Washington’s Stanley Cup).

Chris Gates: I know this is kind of touching on the next question, but if Evgeni Malkin is playing at the level he’s shown us in the preseason I think the Penguins will be just fine. If the power play can resemble some level of competent efficiency they’ll be even better. The Penguins were No. 3 in the Eastern Conference without Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal for a half year each. I don’t see any reason why, with at least two of those three healthy, they can’t have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Mike Colligan: I think the Penguins will be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference but I’m trying to temper my expectations a bit. When the Penguins went on a 12-game winning streak with Crosby in the lineup last fall, I saw a team that was in the midst of a soft stretch in the schedule and riding on the back of a player who could not be stopped. Even though the Penguins maintained that success without Crosby and finished with one of the best records in the conference, the team won 10 games via the shootout which will be hard to repeat. With Crosby back soon, the Penguins finished 2nd and win at the Atlantic Division. Without Crosby they finish 5th.

Sean Leahy: I don’t think the Pens will suffer all that much if Sid doesn’t come back until January/February. The inspiration the players that came within a win of advancing to the second round a year ago without Sid or Geno received will help them this season. They know they can win without the major stars in the lineup if they can commit to team play and continue to be solid defensively. With or without Sid, I still see the Pens as Atlantic Division champs and one of the top three seeds coming out of the Eastern Conference.

Seth Rorabaugh: No worst than fourth place in the Eastern Conference if everyone is mostly healthy.

4. We’ve seen a rejuvenated Evgeni Malkin in the pre-season and heard stories of his new and improved training regimen, what’s your expecatation for Geno this season?

tPB Derek: Geno will be the mayor of Art Ross city. He has come back stronger, and way more motivated. We were there the first day of training camp and saw a couple of games during the preseason. He was never not the best player on the ice. Just sit back and enjoy this season,

Puck Huffers: Okay, maybe I’m just being a fangirl, but I am pretty sure that Geno is going to rock my world. He looked great in exhibition games. He looked as good as he did in 2009—even more poised, maybe. But of course, it’s only preseason. Basically, he looks motivated, and as long as he keeps playing like he’s motivated and moving the puck the way we all know he can, the numbers will speak for themselves. And I’ll probably be weeping and screaming in my apartment, much to the rest of the neighborhood’s annoyance. We can gauge his performance by how many times the police show up with a noise complaint, how’s that?

TPN Nick: This may sound strange to say but Malkin’s injury last season may have been a blessing in disguise for the Pens. The grind that Malkin and the Pens have taken since 2008 has been grueling to say the least. He has rarely had the chance to rest with two long post-season runs under his belt, the Olympic Games, All-Star Games, and the World Championships. The combination of the injury and the Pens being ousted in round one may have created the perfect storm for Geno. It gave him a chance to rest and rehab properly without having to rush back. I’m expecting huge things from Malkin this season. He’s looked fantastic in the preseason. If his strong play continues, I don’t see anything short of a Hart nomination for Geno.

Brian Metzer: I think the best way to sum this up is to say that I have drafted Evgeni Malkin in the first round of fantasy drafts on more than a few occasions this season. I really believe that he is primed for a monster season. He looks to be in better shape than I have ever seen him before. It looks like he is going to be tough to knock off the puck, let alone off of his skates and he is again playing the game with speed. A lot of his game is and has been predicated on speed and he just wasn’t able to do it over the past two seasons due to lower body issues. He used his rehabilitation to get in “better than ever” shape and is again looking like the guy who will be able to gallop through the neutral zone, press back opposing defenders and open up space for himself and teammates. 100-plus points is not out of the question for him and I really believe he’ll get a handful of Hart Trophy votes before it is all said and done.

PSAMP: Depending on Sid’s return, either 1 or 2 in the scoring race, Sid being the other if Geno ends up number 2. Geno is either gonna take over the league knowing that Sid won’t be back for an extended time, or he’s gonna benefit from Sid’s presence early and often. I’m already in the school of thought that Sid destroys the scoring race if he’s around within a week or 2 of opening night, with Geno taking it with ease if Sid is out longer. I’m really setting myself up for a dream season or a massive letdown.

Eric Majeski: Everyone has seen what Evgeni Malkin’s looked like on this ice since camp opened, so there’s no point in throwing a ton of superlatives out there to describe his play. What really has me excited for this season is his state of mind – from the re-dedication to fitness, the new-found levels of motivation, even to his increased comfort level with English as evidenced by this year’s season ticket holder deliveries and his emergence on Twitter. All of that stuff leads me to believe he is primed for a great year. I look for at least 45 goals and 115 points. If the power play gets on track, those numbers could climb higher. He should be in the mix for the Art Ross and Richard trophies.

Jimmy Rixner: I’m still remembering that he’s coming off a major surgery PLUS other teams can focus on shutting him down with no Crosby at the start of the year. The stat line I’d hope for Geno would be set at 75 games 35 goals, 55 assists, 90 points and under 60 penalty minutes. Can he do better than that? Sure. And I hope he does, but if he can hit that bar that’s a pretty great season considering his knee was in shreds eight months ago.

Chris Gates: I expect consistency from Geno. That would be a welcome sight. Malkin was streaky last year before being lost to injury. He’s had a history of streaky play throughout his career, and I expect his newfound work ethic to cut down on those 6, 7, 8-game pointless streaks. If that’s the case, he’s a 100-point player.

Mike Colligan: I expect a career year from Malkin this year. The best thing that could have happened to him was that doctors left the window open for him to potentially return in the playoffs. Instead of pouting about his injury, Malkin rehabbed relentlessly and got himself ahead of schedule and in a hard-working mindset. When the team was knocked out of the playoffs he simply carried the effort over into summer training and conditioning and it shows. Even aside from the major knee surgery, Malkin has quietly struggled with a number of ailments the past two seasons. A motivated and healthy Malkin should have no trouble topping 100 points and winning the Hart Trophy.

Sean Leahy: Just watching him in the preseason has made me change my pants several times. I think we’re about to see a return of the Art Ross winning Geno to the lineup. The fact that he’s re-committed himself to training and he knows that he needs to bounce back from last season where, before his injury, his numbers weren’t to the level that they can be. I wouldn’t be shocked if he broke 100 points.

Seth Rorabaugh: Assuming he stays healthy, 40 goals, 100 points for Malkin.

5. And one for fun, give me your first Penguin goal-scorer of the season.

tPB Derek: James Neal scores the first goal of the Pens season.

Puck Huffers: Chris Kunitz. He’s a dark horse. You usually don’t expect him to score, but then he does. If it is going to be a defenseman I’m going to go out on a limb and say Paul Martin. I like the quiet ones, apparently.

TPN Nick: Steve Sullivan – assisted by his peers, Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis. (wait.. what year is it again?)

Brian Metzer: Since it is all in fun… here are a handful of firsts:
First goal: Tyler Kennedy
First assist: Evgeni Malkin
First penalty: Jordan Staal
First SOG: Paul Martin
First short-handed goal: Matt Cooke
First power play goal: James Neal
First goalie beaten with a Sidney Crosby shot: Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen – Nov. 11

PSAMP: Sullivan.

Eric Majeski: Since the Pens open in Vancouver, I’ll take the ex-Canuck Matt Cooke.

Jimmy Rixner: Here’s a tip for you guys – in the last two months of October James Neal has 13 goals and 13 assists in 24 games. He’s a very fast starter. So I’ll say he unleashes a rocket an assist from Malkin for the first goal of the year….And it’ll be the power play, no less. Go Pens.

Chris Gates: Matt Cooke in Vancouver. Awwww yeaaaaaa.

Mike Colligan: Mark Letestu. The guy was tough to watch at times near the end of last season, but he got off to a great start last fall. An early goal will hopefully get his game back on the right track.

Sean Leahy: First goal of the season will be scored by Tyler Kennedy Thursday night against the Canucks.

Seth Rorabaugh: Chris Kunitz.