By Mike Colligan
Instead of the traditional position preview, let’s take an alphabetical look at a few of the Pittsburgh Penguins high hopes, questions, and obstacles for the 2010-2011 season.
A: Adding Asham - Ruslan Fedotenko developed a reputation for scoring big goals in the postseason before departing via free agency this summer. Arron Asham showed he can not only score clutch goals with his soft hands (see video below), but his gritty toughness on a line with Matt Cooke will make the Penguins a very irritating team to face.
B: Backup Goalie Brent Johnson - Aside from the Rangers’ Martin Biron ($875k), Brent Johnson may be one of the best values out there in NHL goaltending. Signed at $600k for two more seasons, he’s given the Penguins the luxury of resting Marc-Andre Fleury without experiencing a dropoff in play. Expect him to get a lot of action early while the team keeps Fleury rested.
C: CONSOL Energy Center - The brand-new $321m arena will host it’s first regular season game Thursday night at 7pm against the rival Flyers. We’ll be profiling the new arena later this week, but after the challenges this team faced, the new arena is as important to Mario Lemieux’s legacy as any Stanley Cup was.
D: Deadline - After shocking the hockey world and landing Marian Hossa a few seasons ago, GM Ray Shero has developed a reputation for making a splash at the trade deadline. The Penguins will start the season with $1-2m in salary cap space which would allow the team to add a $4m+ contract this spring. Last year’s gamble on Alexei Ponikarovsky didn’t work out, but NHL GM’s know where to find a dance partner when they want to unload talent.
E: Experience - For young teams finding their way to the Stanley Cup, losing in the playoffs is a rite of passage. Last year the Chicago Blackhawks used their playoff disappointment the year before to fuel a Cup run. This year, expect the Los Angeles Kings to do the same. For the Penguins, experiencing painful playoff disappointment now plays a different role. Last year’s shocking upset by Montreal has the hunger and determination back in the locker room that was missing for long stretches last season.
F: Fleury – His critics still hang their hat on the idea that the Penguins won a Stanley Cup despite Fleury, not because of his play. Last season his 2.65 GAA and .906 SV% did nothing to silence those doubters. With talented additions in place on defense, this season could have the makings of a career year for the 25-year-old netminder.
G: Gonchar - When it comes to the powerplay, Sergei Gonchar is still one of the NHL’s elite. His departure to Ottawa can’t be spun as a good thing, but given the $16.5m he’ll earn for three years, it was the financially responsible move. The Penguins’ powerplay won’t be worse than 19th in the NHL as they were last year, and it should actually improve with the added unpredictability.
H: Hutchinson – Coming into training camp, few expected defenseman Andrew Hutchinson to last until the final 48 hours (he was waived on Tuesday). His success was a result of his ability to move the puck up the ice and get involved in the offense. From a big picture perspective, he’s an example of the shift in personnel that Shero has actively been seeking since Bylsma took over. Quick, mobile defensemen will make this team exciting to watch and difficult to contain.
I: Infection - Last year Max Talbot was frustrated with the limitations offseason shoulder surgery had on his season. Many are comparing Jordan Staal’s battle with a foot infection to Talbot and wondering if a disappointing campaign is in the cards. Unlike Talbot, Staal’s initial injury is healed and won’t hamper his play long-term. Once the infection is cleared, the only battle is getting back into shape. By the holidays he’ll be well on his way to a career year.
J: Jeffrey – Dustin Jeffrey scored 77 points in 71 games in the AHL last year and many still have high hopes for the prospect, but I question whether his skillset translates to the NHL level. He could probably contribute on a third line elsewhere in the NHL, but he came into training camp expected to challenge for a roster spot and failed to become part of the final conversation. He’ll get a chance at some point throughout the season to make an impact with the Penguins, but I’m wondering if a change in scenery is in his future.
K: Kunitz - Chris Kunitz was brought in from Anaheim to be a long-term solution on Sidney Crosby’s wing. With only 20 goals in a season a half, he hasn’t exactly filled that void, but most of his struggles can be attributed to injuries. It’s not easy for a 6-0, 193 lb power-forward to stay healthy, but if he can he’ll notch the first 30 goal season of his career.
L: Letang – With Gonchar out the picture, Kris Letang will be relied on for more important minutes on defense this season. After a shaky second half last year, he’s had an aura of confidence around him in camp. He worked on his shot all summer and if he finds the confidence to unleash it on opponents, he could become a dangerous offensive force.
M: Malkin – Another player on a mission to silence critics this season is Evgeni Malkin. He should find himself with more talented linemates this year and will be chasing Alexander Ovechkin for the scoring title at the end of the season.
N: Net Presence - The one weakness that still remains on this team is a strong presence in front of the opponent’s net. Eric Tangradi will have the chance to be that guy and Jordan Staal should be causing havoc by midseason, but this will likely become the trade deadline focus for the team.
O: Opportunity - A few seasons ago, Shero plugged holes on his scoring lines with proven (yet out-of-favor) players like Miroslav Satan. After Satan and others didn’t work out, he’s changed his free agent philosophy. By bringing in players like Mike Comrie, Brett Sterling, Ryan Craig, Chris Collins and others at league minimum salaries, he creates intense competition for open spots. High risk, high reward, low cost players. If enough are in camp and in the AHL, eventually one turns to gold.
P: Powerplay – We touched on the benefits of unpredictability, but a successful powerplay needs a leader on the ice. The challenge for the Penguins coaching staff remains how to choose a leader between Crosby and Malkin without alienating the other.
Q: Quality of Division - Outside of the Washington Capitals, the Atlantic Division features the three best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins might fall short of a division title, but constant battles with the Devils and Flyers will have them firing on all cylinders at playoff time.
R: Rocket Richard – No one saw 51 goals coming from Crosby last year. As opponents adjust to keep him from the net, expect his goals to drop and instead he’ll return to the 85 assist level.
S: Sterling - Brett Sterling jumped out of the gates at training camp this year and found himself alongside Sidney Crosby for a few games. He’ll get another chance at some point, but in the meantime fans of the Wilkes-Barre (AHL) squad should see him shatter Chris Minard’s goal-scoring record of 34.
T: Tangradi - We’ve covered Eric Tangradi at length on THW, but what we didn’t talk about was his demeanor. He speaks in a way that shows he totally expects to be on a top scoring line, but does it without any sense of cockiness. On another team without this young core of leaders already in place, he’d be Captain material.
U: Upbeat - If there’s one thing that stands outs after a full season of Dan Bylsma behind the bench, it’s his upbeat demeanor and positive attitude. He knows that he needs to portray seriousness and authority around the players, but he’s genuinely excited to be at the rink every single day. Instead of talking negatively about a player’s performance, he deflects questions to talk about players that are doing well. The coaching style focused on degrading and emotionally-draining players is being phased of the game, and with upbeat guys like Bylsma and Scott Arniel (Columbus) moving in, that’s a good thing.
V: Value = Comrie - It wasn’t easy for inconsistent players to find work this summer. After suffering through frustrating seasons in Phoenix, Long Island, and Edmonton, Mike Comrie chose upside and Stanley Cup opportunities over money. If he maintains the chemistry he has right now with Malkin, Comrie will make more than than enough next summer.
W: Washington - Before the playoffs started last season, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was already talking about facing the Penguins. Just over a week later, his squad had been bounced out of the first round. At times it seems as if Washington has an unhealthy obsession with the Penguins, but I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not.
X: X-Factor – Paul Martin remains the biggest unknown heading into the season. After lingering problems with a broken arm limited him to just 22 games last year with the Devils, Martin will be looking to earn his $5m paycheck. If he can be the reliable two-way defenseman Shero is hoping for, he’ll lead an impressive defensive unit that’s already signed for the next two seasons.
Y: Youth – When the oldest players on the team are just 33 (Craig Adams and Brent Johnson) , it’s scary to think about what the future holds.
Z: Zbynek Michalek - Overlooked in the desert, Michalek will finally get the attention he’s deserved over the past few seasons. He’ll need some time to adjust, but his initial pass on breakouts is the best on the team and he’ll lead the league in blocked shots, making Fleury’s life much easier.