It seemed like just last week I was watching in stunned amazement as the Boston Bruins won the Eastern Conference by dismantling the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games, and holding them to just two goals, as a team, total.
Yet here we are, on the eve of the 2013-14 season for the once-again incredibly-talented and heavily-favored Penguins. But this team will have a much different feel to it. Matt Cooke is now in Minnesota, and that absence will be felt much more than people realize. That’s one of five predictions that I will make in this article, and it seems like a good place to start. So lets get on with the preview.
Being Tough to Play Against
That has been the mantra of Pens’ GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma for some years now, and Matt Cooke – heck I’ll even throw in Tyler Kennedy for good measure – were a big part of style. Kennedy was traded to the San Jose Sharks on draft day for a 2013 second-round pick, and Cooke was never offered a contract to stay in Pittsburgh, so he found himself landing in Minnesota.
Cooke was the agitator extraordinaire on this team a season ago, and Kennedy was just like a gnat always buzzing around and bugging the opposition. It didn’t hurt that TK never met a shot that he didn’t like to take, on the ice that is. Those two never put up prolific numbers in Pittsburgh, but their style of play did wonders for the guys around them.
This current Penguins’ team is void of both those styles of play. Tanner Glass will be looked upon to try and replace Cooke’s aggravation of opponents, but Glass is more a fighter/enforcer than he is the kind of player that gets under your skin and causes you to take a bad penalty. The player who really could fill that hole voided by Cooke’s departure, will be defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. He showed signs of agitation-ability last season in spot duty, and even more of it this preseason in earning himself a place on the main roster.
Duplicating Tyler Kennedy’s energy may prove even more difficult to replicate. Looking up and down this roster, no one immediately jumps out at you as being a player who just flies up and down the ice, giving hits and taking shots. Kennedy was much maligned here in Pittsburgh for his lack of goal-scoring, but his game was more than just that. You needn’t look any farther than this past post-season when he was inserted into the lineup prior to Game Five against the New York Islanders.
A Flawed System
It’s no secret that the masses were calling for Dan Bylsma’s head during the off-season. But now that the sting of the loss in the Eastern Conference Final has dissipated, cooler heads are beginning to prevail.
The bottom line here is that since Bylsma took over the head coaching duties in February of 2009, the Penguins have been one of the best teams in the league during the regular season. Minus the 2010-11 season, in which the Pens lost both Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (torn ACL/MCL) for nearly half the season, Pittsburgh has been in the running for the President’s Trophy for most points. Couple with that the fact that the Pens have consistently ranked near the top of the league, if not the number one team overall, in scoring. Add it up and its hard to argue with the job that the head coach of the United States Mens Olympic Hockey Team for 2014 has done in coaching the Penguins. His shortcomings lie in the post-season.
The Bruins systematically picked apart Byslma’s offensive style, leaving the Penguins in a state of disarray, not to mention utter astonishment. Still, Shero deemed Bylsma and the entire coaching staff worthy of contract extensions. Hard to imagine, however, that those extensions were granted without some discussion first. Brace yourself for my second prediction: Bylsma will alter his system when necessary, and abandon it altogether when it is failing. Something tells me that in the days that followed the humbling dismissal from the playoffs by the Boston Bruins, Shero basically told Bylsma to stop being so arrogant when it comes to his game. Be willing to make adjustments, on the fly if necessary, and work on a plan b and maybe even a plan c for when plan a isn’t working too well.
Best of the Best (have to be the Best)
Pittsburgh can boast that it is the home to three of the best hockey players in the world, and two of them actually still play (Mario Lemieux obviously now just signs paychecks).
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin must be the best in the world. Crosby got what he presumably wanted, which were contract extensions for his linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. It was said during one of the very first practices of training camp that those three appear to already be in mid-season form. This does not bode well for the newly formed Metropolitan Division, along with the remainder of the NHL. Last year that line was far and away the best line in hockey. They were the top three point scorers on the team, accounting for 57 goals (the rest of the team combined scored 85) and 146 points.
Evgeni Malkin meanwhile, will find himself with the (wait for it, third prediction…) long-term solution on his left wing. Sunshine himself, Beau Bennett. The California kid showed glimpses of what he is capable of last season, and continued to impress this preseason. He added about 20 lbs during the summer, and brought a grit and tenacity to his game that will make him a staple on Malkin’s wing for seasons to come.
Sticking with the Malkin line topic, Bennett is a playmaker. In the NHL being a playmaker means that you’re more of a setup guy than a goal scorer, which is exactly what Gino and James Neal are. This line has the potential to absolutely tear apart opposing defenses this season. You’re gonna get a two-fer in this section. Predicion #4: by the end of the season, barring injury, this will be the Penguins’ most productive line.
The Piece Will Fit Once Again
Ray Shero admitted to making a mistake four years ago when he allowed Rob Scuderi to leave the Penguins via free agency. In truth, he essentially had no choice. The Pens couldn’t afford to pay him what the L.A. Kings did. But now, “The Piece” is back in Pittsburgh, and presumably will partner with 2013 Norris Candidate Kris Letang (once Letang returns from a lower-body injury).
This partnership should free up Letang to work his magic in the offensive zone, while hopefully helping him to become a better defender in his own end.
Scuderi’s game is a simple one: be in position at all times, keep your stick on the ice to help clear the puck from in front of your own net, and be willing to sacrifice your body whenever necessary. He is he stereotypical defensive defenseman in the NHL. Rarely will you see his name in a game recap, or see an offensive highlight involving him on NHL Tonight. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s exactly the way it should be for a d-man like Scuderi.
The fifth and final prediction of this article that I will give you is this: because of Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang will win the Norris Trophy this season.
Five More Bolder Predictions
It is a season preview after all. And what would a sports preview be without a prediction on where the team will finish?
To me, these Pittsburgh Penguins still seem to missing something. I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet, but they just don’t have that feel of a team that is a Stanley Cup favorite (which they aren’t. That title belongs the either the Bruins).
Bold prediction #1: The Penguins will not win the Metropolitan Division. They’ll finish second. One of the New York teams will win it.
Bold prediction #2: Sidney Crosby will lead the NHL in scoring and win the Hart Trophy.
Bold prediction #3: Beau Bennett will lead the Penguins in assists.
Bold prediction #4: Sooner rather than later, Penguins fans will see the future of the organization in net, and his name is Eric Hartzell.
Bold prediction #5: The Pittsburgh Penguins will once again fall short of the Stanley Cup Final.
Keep this one on your browser’s history and check back at the end of the season to see how I did.
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