Originally Published: September 24, 2013

Pittsburgh Penguins: Top dog again

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Even now it seems incomprehensible that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that was the runaway leader in the Eastern Conference, the top team in the league in goals per game and second on the power play, could find themselves swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins. Furthermore, that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz would be held without a goal as the Penguins scored just twice in the series. But thats what happened, a shocking turn of events that Crosby said looms as one of the most bitter defeats of his career.

Still, the Penguins did advance to the final four, their first foray beyond the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. And GM Ray Shero kept the band together, locking Letang and Malkin up long-term this offseason and ignoring the external pressure to make a coaching change or find a new home for displaced starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Shero even repatriated defenseman Rob Scuderi, a key part of the Pens' run to the Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, to ensure that, once again, the Penguins will begin the season as one of the favorites to make a deep run in the postseason.

Perhaps the biggest changes in Pittsburgh were the ones that weren't made as head coach Dan Bylsma -- also the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team -- returns with his staff. Coming in to provide some expertise, especially on the defensive side of the puck, is former Ottawa head coach Jacques Martin. Conspiracy experts will suggest Martin will be waiting for the Penguins to falter so he can replace Bylsma, but that's not the vibe we get. In fact, we are told the addition was driven in large part by Bylsma himself.

Another change sees longtime goaltending coach Gilles Meloche move to other assignments with the team. The job of getting Fleury in the right headspace after a second straight disappointing playoff performance now falls to Mike Bales, although Fleury did consult with a sports psychologist in the offseason -- something that raised eyebrows, but it's worth noting that many teams rely on similar experts on an ongoing basis from season to season.

The Penguins' goaltending situation became more unsettled during training camp though when Tomas Vokoun, who'd been solid in relief of Fleury in the playoffs, was hospitalized with blood clots in his abdominal area and required surgery to stabilize the issue. He has a history of blood issues and it's not known when he might return to action, setting the stage for Shero to move to Plan B for a backup. But the Penguins' cap situation makes simply adding a veteran netminder like Ilya Bryzgalov or Jose Theodore difficult without moving other pieces of the team's lineup.

Scuderi should fit seamlessly into the dressing room, and watch for youngster Beau Bennett to get a chance to play top six minutes, perhaps with Neal and Malkin. The Pens will miss Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, who were important penalty killers and role players, but Brandon Sutter's continued evolution in Pittsburgh should mitigate those losses and open up spots for younger players coming through the Pens pipeline.

Even though the Jarome Iginla experiment turned out to be a bit of a disaster, you can't blame Shero for trying. And while Iginla finally made it to Boston -- where he'd been rumored to be headed at the trade deadline -- and other late-season additions Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray also departed, the Penguins will continue to ice one of the most prolific offensive teams in the NHL.

Start with Crosby, who was en route to a scoring title and MVP honors until a Brooks Orpik shot broke his jaw, forcing him to miss the last month of the shortened season. Malkin was injured but was still better than a point-a-game player. Kunitz enjoyed a breakout season, finishing seventh in scoring with 52 points. Neal, while streaky, has 40-goal potential playing with Malkin. Letang was a Norris Trophy nominee and tied with Norris winner P.K. Subban of Montreal with 38 points for most among rearguards. Scuderi adds more sand to a blue line contingent that, in spite of the team's collapse against Boston in the postseason, was a passable 12th in goals allowed per game. Orpik and Paul Martin combined to form a strong shutdown defensive pair, while Martin continued to produce offensively. The Penguins are rich in defensive prospects, but there seems to be little room this season with Scuderi returning to the fold.

Even much-maligned netminder Fleury had 23 wins -- second-most in the league -- and a .916 save percentage. Vokoun, terrific for the most part in relief of Fleury in the postseason, was being counted on as a solid alternative should Fleury falter, but that has now been thrown into doubt with Vokouns training camp illness. Minor leaguer Jeff Zatkoff is technically the team's backup netminder and was solid for the Pens' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, turning in a 1.93 GAA and .920 save percentage in 49 games last season, although he has zero NHL experience.

There will be some change at the bottom end of the offensive lineup with Cooke headed to Minnesota and Kennedy traded to San Jose, but Shero likes the idea that there will be some competition for spots with guys like Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, veteran Jussi Jokinen and Dustin Jeffrey. Robert Bortuzzo and 6-foot-4 youngster Brian Dumoulin, who came in the Jordan Staal trade, may make their presence felt on the veteran-laden blue line.

"He's going to play; it's a matter of when," Shero said of Dumoulin.

Crosby talked about the learning component of a loss like the one suffered against the Bruins, taking on personal responsibility for not producing timely goals.

"I look at myself in the mirror for that, having those opportunities and having (Tuukka) Rask make those big save. You want those chances back and you want to put them in," Crosby said. "But you have to make sure you learn from it."

That learning experience has to be taken to heart throughout the lineup. When the Penguins' power play went dry in the conference final, they couldn't find a way to produce offense in other ways. The Penguins need to relearn what it takes to win, Shero said, and a big part of that is patience. Letang, another player who struggled mightily in the postseason, has committed himself to being a better all-around defender and leader and he'll need to be.

While the coaching staff and management remain committed to Fleury in goal, the bottom line is this looms as a monster year for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.

In spite of his often stellar work during recent regular seasons, Fleury has struggled miserably in his last two playoff seasons. Between 2012 and 2013, Fleury is 4-6 in the postseason and, in nine of those games, Fleury failed to post a save percentage better than .905. Doesn't matter how prolific your offense is, no team is going to win a Cup with that level of playoff goaltending. The rub is that we've seen Fleury produce elite level goaltending, winning 30 postseason games between 2008-09. But that's a long time ago in goaltending years. Can Fleury get past the yips that seem to afflict him every spring? The Pens think so, although Shero noted that it will be up to Fleury to prove that he's the man for the job come playoff time. The rest of the hockey world reserves judgment, especially if the Pens do go with an untested backup pending Vokoun's treatment and recovery from his blood clot issues.

Beyond the goaltending, the Penguins need to do a better job on the penalty kill (they were 25th during the regular season, although they were much improved in the postseason).

The move to the Metropolitan Division should do little to impact the Penguins, who look once again to be the team to beat no matter what the division is called.

Burnside: Assuming they avoid cataclysmic injuries, there's no reason the Penguins shouldn't emerge as the top seed in the division and the Eastern Conference.

Custance: First in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: First in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: First in the Metropolitan Division.

Strang: First in the Metropolitan Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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