The Pittsburgh Penguins ended the 2008/2009 season the way every NHL team wants to: holding the Stanley Cup over their heads.
But all that means now is that they were league champions last year. No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in over a decade and, if the Penguins hope to break that streak, they need to focus all of their attention and energy on the coming season.
So, how do the Pittsburgh Penguins stack up against the rest of the league? Quite well.
Only one forward that dressed in game seven against Detroit is no longer with the Penguins (Miroslav Satan.) That number becomes two if you take into account that the injured Max Talbot will miss the first month or two or the season. Petr Sykora, who sat for the majority of the playoffs, has also left the Penguins. He signed with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent.
What you’re left with is a very powerful offense. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are generational talents that are maturing and growing every year. No one can doubt their intensity and passion for the game and their skills are among the best in the NHL. They are supported by a strong cast of reliable performers including Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. They definitely aren’t lacking toughness either. Players like Eric Godard, Matt Cooke and Mike Rupp will make life difficult for the Pens opponents.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Penguins offense is that, in many cases, their grit and toughness comes from their top offensive players. Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy are strong, physical players and Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin do not shy away from confrontation. Ryan Bayda is still in the running to make the team as well.
Their offense is a little small in stature, however and the Pens could always use another top flight winger but, despite that, they remain one of the top offensive teams in the league.
A lot has been made of the departures of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill and with good reason. The two men formed a strong defensive pairing on the Penguins blue line and without Scuderi’s game saving efforts in game six of the Final, the Penguins would not have claimed the Cup.
However, the Penguins defensive corps is still very strong. Led by veteran Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh has a great deal of mobility and offensive fire power on the blue line. Kris Letang is quickly showing signs of becoming Gonchar’s heir apparent and Alex Goligoski isn’t far behind. Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik and newcomer Jay McKee add a strong defensive base. A healthy Gonchar will do wonders for the Penguins defense and power play.
The talent of Marc-Andre Fleury has frequently been questioned. However, the Flower is coming off two strong playoff performances in the last two seasons. He can sometimes stumble, but Fleury has proven that he can play in big games. His play in a pair of game sevens against Washington and Detroit have removed any doubts that he cannot play under pressure.
He will likely be backed up by Brent Johnson. Johnson, when healthy, is a very strong backup goaltender who will be able to shoulder his share of the load.
If the Penguins have a question mark on their team, it may come from behind the bench. Dan Bylsma had a dream come true last year as he joined the team in February, went on an outstanding run and ended his season with the Stanley Cup in his hands.
The question is, can he bottle the intensity and drive that powered his team last year and spread it out over an entire season? If he can, the Penguins become one of the most formidable teams in the NHL.
For the first time in years the Penguins prospect pool is very deep. Eric Tangradi and Luca Caputi are the most NHL-ready players in the Penguins system, but Chris Conner, Paul Bissonnette and Dustin Jeffrey have shown they could have what it takes as well.
On defense, Ben Lovejoy, Nate Guenin, Brian Strait and first overall draft pick Simon Despres are the top prospects. Despres has been returned to the QMJHL, but both Guenin and Lovejoy could see time in the NHL this year. Despres was very impressive in the preseason.
The Penguins top goaltending prospect is John Curry, who has been very strong in his NHL appearances thus far. Brad Thiessen has also showed promise.
Overall, if the Pittsburgh Penguins can maintain their focus and stick with Bylsma’s aggressive strategy, a second Stanley Cup isn’t out of the question.