Malkin locked in, but which Fleury do the Penguins have?
Matt D’Agostini, Andrew Ebbett, Rob Scuderi.
Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray.
Last year: The good news is it wasn’t a concussion; the bad news is Sidney Crosby still missed a significant portion of the Penguins season to injury. After being struck by an errant puck, Crosby required oral surgery and missed the last 12 games of the regular season and first playoff game.
That was the story of Pittsburgh’s regular season because prior to his injury Crosby was running away with the Hart Trophy. Even with the fewer games played, the superstar centre was still a finalist for the award and walked away with the Ted Lindsay Award when the end-of-season hardware was handed out.
If Crosby was the story of Pittsburgh’s regular season, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the story of the playoffs.
The Penguins entered the post-season as top seed in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Conference Final before goaltending let them down and they were swept by the Boston Bruins.
Goaltending was a sore spot for Pittsburgh all post-season long, particularly with Fleury. He made just four starts, recording an .883 save percentage and 3.52 goals against average before coaches decided to make the switch to Tomas Vokoun for the rest of their run.
Vokoun fared better with a .933 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average – but still wasn’t able to carry the Penguins to their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.
This Year: Pittsburgh lost some talent this off-season, but the majority of players leaving town were late season rentals that can just be replaced again at next year’s trade deadline.
Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, and Douglas Murray all moved on after their brief stays with the Penguins but barring early-season disaster, there should be a new crop of star rental players added for the team’s playoff push come early March.
The team did lose perennial pest Matt Cooke as a free agent to the Minnesota Wild but more importantly locked up key contributors Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz, and to a lesser extent Pascal Dupuis.
Defenceman Rob Scuderi and centre Andrew Ebbett were also added as free agents to bolster the team’s depth.
No moves were made in goal, with coach Bylsma insisting the team remains committed to Fleury as their No. 1 guy.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Penguins' performance after a shortened season?
For at least a few of the Penguins' top players, it isn’t just a jump from a 48-game regular season to an 82-game regular season, it’s that additional five to six games in Russia representing their country midseason.
Crosby, Malkin and possibly Letang could be looking at a lot of hockey from September to June. The concern in Pittsburgh could be over their two superstars, both of whom have battled injuries the past two to three seasons and whether they can stay healthy the entire time.
It will also be interesting to see how the goaltending situation plays out over a full 82. It appears Fleury will be given the early opportunity to find his game again and a return to a normal 82-game format could help him get in synch and get his mind right for the team’s inevitable playoff run.
On the flip side, 82 games is a long time to evaluate performance and if Vokoun plays better in the early portion of the season, he could once again be pegged as the top guy come playoff time.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Pens make to get themselves back in cap shape?
The Penguins made four moves this off-season to lock some major talent on their roster up long term and came away relatively unscathed from a salary cap perspective. Forwards Malkin, Kunitz, and Dupuis were all given contract extensions or new deals that keep them together in town for at least the next four years and are only taking on an extra $3 million combined cap hit per year.
The only deal that really hits them in the pocket is Letang’s new eight-year, $58 million deal. While it doesn’t kick in until the 2014-15 season, it will see the All-Star defenceman’s salary more than double, from $3.5 million to $7.25 million per year.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Penguins after realignment.
The entire former Atlantic Division stayed intact during realignment, it was just given a new name – the Metropolitan Division – and a couple new rivals in the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Washington Capitals.
It’s good news that the Penguins’ rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers should remain strong with four or five meetings a year moving forward.
Pittsburgh will also be challenged by the New York Rangers and Islanders, and the improving Blue Jackets, while a stronger Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry could be created with the Capitals now in the same division.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Jussi Jokinen, LW - A versatile, veteran forward, Jokinen was acquired last season shortly after the Penguins lost Sidney Crosby to injury and Jokinen, who was struggling in Carolina, stepped into the lineup and produced 11 points in 10 regular season games before he was relegated to a part-time role in the postseason.
He's scored 45 points or more six times and the 30-year-old is capable of playing centre or wing, which gives Jokinen an opportunity to fill one of the Penguins' most glaring holes, that of the second-line left wing to play with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. It's a pretty sweet gig, no matter who lands in that spot (Beau Bennett might be another in-house contender) but, assuming that he's not moved out for cap space, Jokinen looks like the leading candidate.
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Pressing Question: Can Fleury recapture his game and do his part in net to help the Penguins high-powered offence back to the Stanley Cup Final?
There are very little, if any, holes in the Penguins lineup on both forward and defence. And with Crosby and Malkin – two former Hart Trophy winners and bona fide NHL superstars – leading the way, the Penguins will always be considered a favourite in the Eastern Conference.
The problem, and it isn’t necessarily one that just popped up last year, has been Fleury and in particular his play in the playoffs.
The 2003 first-overall pick has been solid in the regular season since Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup win in 2009, but his numbers have dipped dramatically in the postseason. Since that Stanley Cup win - now five seasons ago - Fleury has yet to post a save percentage above .900 in the playoffs and his postseason goals against average has twice been above 3.00.
The 28-year-old has done it before, but it might be time to start wondering whether he’ll ever be able to do it again when the pressure is highest.
- Pittsburgh Penguins Preview by Ben Fisher, TSN.ca