Quite possibly the league's most talented team, thanks to two generational talents down the middle, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lots of fantasy appeal. Seriously.
Top Picks: In the last three seasons, C Sidney Crosby has laid the rest of the league to waste when it comes to per-game scoring, his 1.61 points per game miles ahead of second place (teammate Evgeni Malkin, 1.20), and it's that per-game dominance that led me to forecasting Crosby as the league's top scorer for 2013-2014. However, that comes with a giant asterisk and lots of risk because Crosby has played 99 of a possible 212 regular-season games. But if the 26-year-old superstar can manage to avoid the concussion monster, he should win his second career scoring title.
Malkin, who has led the league in scoring twice, has varied from spectacular seasons (topping 100 points three times) to merely good ones and 2013 was an injury-plagued good one, with 33 points in 31 games, despite a shooting percentage (9.1%) well below his 12.8% career mark. As one of the few players with the potential to lead the league in scoring, Malkin still rates as a high-end first-round fantasy pick, even if (or maybe because) he's coming off a down season.
Playing on Crosby's wing has its benefits and LW Chris Kunitz scored over a point-per-game (52 points in 48 games) last season for the first time in his career. He's 33-years-old, has never scored more than 61 points in a season and his production is tied awfully closely to No. 87, but if you're riding shotgun, that's the place to do it.
Over the last two seasons, RW James Neal has scored 61 goals, ranking third, and he appears to be a fine fit on Malkin's wing. That's good enough to a standard No. 1 right winger for fantasy purposes.
Before suffering a broken toe, D Kris Letang had scored better than a point-per-game, playing more than 25 minutes per game, for the first time in his career. Over the last three seasons, he has 130 points, ranking fourth among defencemen, and he works the power play with some of the league's elite talents, so Letang is a strong No. 1 defenceman in fantasy.
Value Plays: Just as Kunitz benefits from playing with Crosby, so too does Pascal Dupuis, a three-time 20-goal scorer; his offensive numbers are just enough lower than he's more of a No. 2 or No. 3 option on right wing. Again, the high-end production is so dependent on Crosby's health that it needs to be taken into account.
Pittsburgh's goaltending situation does present potential value. Even after another playoff flop, Marc-Andre Fleury has the backing of Penguins management (Stanley Cup wins can lead to serious loyalty, kids) and he's fine as a regular-season goaltender, posting a league-best 101 wins and entirely respectable .916 save percentage over the last three seasons. If he plays 60-plus games, he could even be a fantasy stud.
On the other hand, Tomas Vokoun has a .922 save percentage since 2008-2009, ranking third. He gave the Penguins a chance in last year's playoffs and would obviously have great value if he was Pittsburgh's starter, but he does have to contend with Fleury.
Sleepers/Breakthrough: There is an opening on the wing with Malkin and Neal, potentially one of the league's plum spots, and there are a couple guys who could reap rewards on that left wing. Veteran Jussi Jokinen was lost in Carolina last season, but had 11 points in 10 games with the Penguins when he was acquired after Crosby was hurt. A three-time 50-point scorer, Jokinen could put up good numbers with other skilled players.
If the Penguins want a little more youthful energy in that spot, Beau Bennett is coming off a solid first pro season, scoring 14 points in 26 games with the Penguins after 28 points in 39 AHL games. He was a first-round pick in 2010, but that doesn't necessarily mean the 21-year-old is ready for that prime spot. He could start the year on the third line instead.
No one's going to excited about Brooks Orpik's scoring numbers (64 points over the last four seasons), but he's a hitter (827 over the last four years) and, playing for the Penguins, is plus-75 since 2007-2008.
Rookies: With Bennett missing Calder Trophy eligibility by one game, there aren't any likely freshman candidates to start the year in Pittsburgh. 19-year-old D Derrick Pouliot, the eighth pick in 2012, might warrant a look, but the blueline is already crowded.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.