Why The Pittsburgh Penguins Will (and Won’t) Repeat

mellonarenasignThe puck drops on the latest NHL season tonight.  Everyone’s record is 0-0-0.  Every player starts with zero points, zero penalty minutes and a perfectly even plus/minus rating.  The sins of last season are forgotten and optimism around the league is at a high.

A new NHL season brings promise, hope and dreams of glory.  Every team wants to do better than last year.  Except for one team.  One team would be happy if everything played out exactly the same.

That team is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Through all of the ups and downs last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the year with the Stanley Cup over their heads.  Of course, that means nothing now.  This season will not be identical to the last one; that’s impossible.  Seasons in the NHL are long, arduous journeys.  They are completely unpredictable and seemingly small changes can alter a team’s destiny in an instant.

Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins 2008-2009 season for proof.  If you had told someone that the team sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with two months remaining in the season would end the year as Cup champions, you probably would have been committed.  Firing your coach, trading a part of your young core and signing a 38-year-old at the deadline isn’t the usual recipe for success in the NHL.  However, that’s because there isn’t a “usual recipe.”  Teams succeed for a number of reasons and no two teams follow the same road to the Stanley Cup.

So, while it’s impossible to accurately predict what will happen this season, here is a list of five reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t repeat as champions next year, followed by a list of five reasons why they will.

Five Reasons The Pittsburgh Penguins Won’t Repeat As Champions

A lack of scoring wingers
This has been the story for several seasons now.  Over the past few years Ziggy Palffy, Colby Armstrong, Andy Hilbert, Ryan Malone, Mark Recchi, Marian Hossa, Miroslav Satan, Pascal Dupuis, Petr Sykora, Maxime Talbot, Chris Kunitz, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Guerin and even Mario Lemieux himself (among others) have filled in the spaces to the left and right of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The problem with having three very talented centers with three very large contracts is that signing top level wingers to long term contracts isn’t possible.  That has led to a revolving door of wingers on the top two lines.  Crosby seems to be set with Guerin and Kunitz, but Malkin will start the season without Max Talbot and Petr Sykora, who is now in Minnesota.  Ruslan Fedotenko remains, but Malkin’s right winger is currently unknown.  Even if Tyler Kennedy steps up and fills the role, he will merely do a serviceable job.  Neither Fedotenko or Kennedy are close to Malkin’s level of talent.  The same can be said for Guerin and Kunitz.

While the Pens have learned to work with subpar wingers on the top two lines, that lack of scoring depth could hurt them in the long run.

A Stanley Cup Hangover
Last year the Pittsburgh Penguins skated with the image of the Detroit Red Wings raising the Cup at Mellon Arena in their minds for the entire season.  That image motivated them to succeed.  It forced them to work harder, play stronger and dig deeper in order to avoid the same fate two years in a row.

This year the Pittsburgh Penguins have a summer of celebrating and a sense of accomplishment in their heads.  Will they be able to find the motivation to work hard once again?

The Pittsburgh Penguins have just played two very long seasons in a row.  That also means they’ve faced two very short offseasons.  Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik (and possibly Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal) will likely play significant roles in the winter Olympics as well.  That means they won’t get to rest while the rest of the league takes a break.

Eventually fatigue will set in.  Will the Penguins be able to push through it?

A Tough Division
The Atlantic Division is one of the toughest and arguably the toughest division in the NHL.  The New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and especially the Philadelphia Flyers will play the Penguins hard every game.  Even the New York Islanders always seem to put in strong efforts against the Pens.  Playing top quality teams frequently will be very difficult.

In fact, as the defending champions, every team in the entire league will play the Penguins a little bit harder than the will the rest of the league.  Can the Pens take it?

Unproven Defense
While the Penguins didn’t lose many impact players during the offseason, the absence of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi will be felt in Pittsburgh.  The two made up a strong defensive pairing and they both played big minutes against the top offenses in the league.  Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski may have trouble filling those roles.

The lack of a shutdown pair could seriously hamper the Penguins chances this year.

Five Reasons The Pittsburgh Penguins Will Repeat As Champions

Ray Shero
Last offseason, when the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Marian Hossa, Gary Roberts, Jarko Ruutu, Ryan Malone and others, people thought they were done.  Ray Shero signed the players necessary to make the team better.  When the Penguins needed an extra scoring touch and some added grit, Shero traded Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi.  When Rob Scuderi left, Shero signed Jay McKee at a huge discount.  Shero has also managed to secure Malkin, Crosby, Fleury, Staal and Orpik into long-term deals without breaking the salary cap.

Ray Shero’s ability to make deals for impact players while still holding onto a strong core is one of the main reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins are successful.  Shero doesn’t always make the popular move.  He traded fan favourite Colby Armstrong as part of the Marian Hossa deal.  He allowed hometown talent Ryan Malone to leave the organization.  He refuses to sign roleplayers to long deals.  He’s found waiver wire gold in Craig Adams and turned “future considerations” into Mike Zigomanis.

Ray Shero knows exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins need at any given time.  He doesn’t panic and he fills in holes in his team his team with the kind of players that support his young superstars.  The players he signed in the offseason weren’t the most talented ones available, but they were the right ones for the Penguins.

Marc-Andre Fleury
In the 2009 playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury showed that he can play in big games.  He played in the pressure of two game sevens on the road and exceeded expectations.  This year it’s obvious that he wants to make Team Canada.  That means every game between now and the Olympics is a big, high pressure game.  When everything is on the line Marc-Andre Fleury plays his best.  When he’s feeling confident, Marc-Andre Fleury plays his best.  He now has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and a potential place among his country’s best on the biggest stage in the world on the line.

Marc-Andre Fleury will play his best.

Experience & Maturity
The Pittsburgh Penguins have played in the last two Stanley Cup Finals.  They have faced off against the best teams in hockey.  They wear the scars of many tough battles and, most importantly, they know how to win.  They’ve been there before, both on the winning end and the losing end.  They know what it takes to be a champion but they also know what it’s like to fall short.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are a completely different team than they were two years ago, and not just because of personnel changes.  They have grown and they have matured.  They are experienced enough to ride out the lows and stay grounded during the highs.

That sort of composure is vital to winning a championship.

It’s very easy to forget how young many of the players on the Penguins are.  Sidney Crosby, Tyler Kennedy, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Alex Goligoski, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are all 25 or younger.  That’s a significant portion of the team’s core players.  So while these players have the experience and maturity listed above, they also have youth on their side.  If anyone is fit to handle the grind of a third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it is the young roster of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

When the players closer to 30 are stopping to catch their breaths in April, the youngsters on the Penguins will just be hitting their stride.  That combination of youth and experience will be deadly.

Sidney Crosby & Evgeni Malkin
When you combine youth and experience with incredible talent, you get Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  They are two of the greatest players in the game and form a dangerous one-two punch down the center of the Penguins line-up.  At 22 and 23 years of age respectively, Crosby and Malkin are just stepping into their primes.  The two have combined for 599 points over the past three years and hitting 100 points each won’t be a stretch for them this season, once again.

The drive to be the best exists in both Crosby and Malkin and neither of them will be happy to stop with one Stanley Cup.