Penguins: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
The Pittsburgh Penguins are obviously a very different team without Sidney Crosby, but it is equally apparent from anyone who watched them pile up 106 points last season that the team is more than just No. 87.
True, Pittsburgh did blow a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs when its power play went bust. It was the Pens' second straight postseason disappointment. But we'll cut them a break given that neither Crosby nor former scoring champ Evgeni Malkin was in the lineup.
GM Ray Shero and defending Jack Adams Award winner Dan Bylsma have quietly remade this Penguins squad into one of the most difficult to play against in the NHL. With a stingy defense and a healthy Malkin and Jordan Staal in the lineup from the get-go, there is no reason the Penguins won't once again be an elite team even if Crosby isn't ready at the start of the season.
When he returns, however, you can start penciling in the Penguins for a long spring run in 2012.
The face of the franchise skated on the first day of camp for 70 minutes and followed that with more than an hour of hard skating with his teammates, and so on. Although Crosby, Shero and doctors are in lockstep that Crosby will not return until he is 100 percent recovered from a concussion sustained in January, it looked like that line in the ice may be crossed sooner rather than later after seeing him at camp.
"I was watching the other day and I said to Dan I'd pay 9 million bucks just to watch him practice," Shero told ESPN.com.
If there is one thing that sticks with us from listening to Crosby's doctors, it's the belief that when he is 100 percent, there is nothing stopping him from returning to the form that saw him running away with the scoring race at the time of his injury.
2. The mindset
If you look at how well the Penguins played without Crosby and Malkin in the second half of last season, you have to accept that this isn't a case of 23 guys sitting around watching the dressing room door waiting for the big boys to come in and save the day. Or something like that. Instead, the team adjusted to the absence of their stars and made do.
"[Malkin and Crosby] will always be the face of the franchise, and that's wonderful," Shero said. "But I've said since I got here that we won't be an organization that's just built around one or two players. You can't be if you want to have success."
That mindset should make this Penguins team even stronger when it has a full complement of stars, a marriage of mettle and skill that many teams covet but rarely achieve.
"I think we believe in ourselves, and what everybody says around us, it doesn't really matter. We believe we have a strong team," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said.
3. The offense
Let's not get carried away with pumping the Penguins' tires. The fact of the matter is Crosby played in only 41 games and still led the team in scoring with 66 points last season. Defenseman Kris Letang was second with 50. Apart from Crosby, the team had only two 20-goal scorers, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy.
Without Crosby, Malkin has to get back to elite status. Staal will have to stay healthy and assume a more prominent role offensively as opposed to simply being one of the best shut-down centers in the NHL. Steve Sullivan, brought in from Nashville as a free agent, has to stay healthy and prove he's still got that great puck sense that led him to be a perennial 20-goal player for much of his career.
4. James Neal
And then there's James Neal, perhaps the most interesting part of an intriguing lot of players up front. Brought over from Dallas at the trade deadline, Neal looked to be the long-term answer to the perpetual question in Pittsburgh: Who will play with Crosby and Malkin? But Malkin and Crosby weren't around to find the answer.
Neal struggled mightily when he came over, scoring just once in 20 regular-season games and adding one lonely goal in the Pens' seven-game loss to Tampa Bay. The big winger has oodles of skill and, even without Crosby at least at the start, should be in the 30-goal range in this lineup.
"There's no reason for him to score two goals in 27 games. Seriously. This guy's too good," Shero told us.
Neal acknowledged his brief stint in Pittsburgh was frustrating, but he is looking at this season as a fresh start.
5. Matt Cooke returns
Bylsma acknowledged he's not exactly sure how the Matt Cooke experiment is going to work out, but the bottom line is, the agitating, oft-suspended forward has to change his game or he will be out of work.
Since being suspended for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, Cooke said he's dedicated the time to changing his game and is confident he can play hard, but within the guidelines set up by the league.
"If I was just making that change and going out by the seat of my pants and trying to do it, I'm saying there would be a lot of hesitation, there would be a lot of second-guessing," Cooke said. "When I was handed my suspension, I put a lot of time and effort and a lot of work since then to instill these changes and they started then. It continued when we were scrimmaging with the guys and it will continue through camp."
If he can return and be effective, it will give the Pens another element up front, as Cooke and Staal have formed a formidable penalty-killing duo and an agitating force that can produce offensively.
6. Geno returns
It seems like a long time ago when Malkin roared to an Art Ross Trophy in 2008-09 with 113 points and followed that up with a well-earned Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with 36 points in 24 games as the Pens won the Cup. He was banged up and played only 67 games the next season and was part of a disappointing playoff loss against Montreal.
Last season, he had just 15 goals in 43 games before he blew out his knee and was on the disabled list for the rest of the season. We have seen Malkin seize the moment in the past when Crosby was injured, thriving on the challenge. Now is a chance for him to get back to elite status and prove he's not just a sidekick.
"I'm looking at a bounce-back year for him because I think he's got something to prove," Shero said.
Malkin looked terrific early in camp playing alongside Sullivan and Kennedy.
7. Staal returns
Staal arrived in training camp with all his limbs attached and no gaping wounds on any part of his body, and that's a relief to him and Pens fans after the past couple of seasons of misadventure. A former Frank J. Selke Trophy nominee, Staal is part of the Pens' Three Amigos down the middle that makes them, when healthy, an automatic Cup contender.
If Crosby isn't ready at the start of the season, the expectations on Staal to do more will grow, which is OK by him. He has proved he's got the goods to be a 20-goal scorer, but is that his top end? We don't think so. No time like the present for a big offensive season for a player who has already demonstrated he can play at either end of the ice.
8. Defensive chemistry
If there is an underlying reason we like the Penguins to return to the Stanley Cup finals (and we're not the only ones by the way), it's their defensive firepower. The Pens' already formidable defensive corps should get better this season. Last fall, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were just learning Bylsma's systems. Now, the big four, which also includes Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang, are well integrated and should hit the ground running and build on a season in which the Penguins tied for sixth in goals allowed per game and first in penalty killing. Orpik, the heart and soul of this Penguins squad, is recovering from abdominal surgery, but should be good to go when the season starts.
People scoffed at us when we insisted Marc-Andre Fleury should have been given a shot at starting for Canada's Olympic team in 2010, but we still recall the two springs of 2008 and 2009 when Fleury won 30 postseason games, including Game 7s on the road in Washington and Detroit in 2009. The problem for Fleury is, when he goes a bit sideways, it's often more than a bit sideways. He struggled through the first part of last season, and there was nonsensical talk that Brent Johnson should be the starter. Johnson was terrific in relief early on, but Fleury's second-half numbers presented an intriguing case for him in Vezina and Hart Trophy discussions. He went 35-14-5 in his last 54 starts and should build on that with a strong start to this season.
10. Tyler's world
Talk about seizing the moment. Kennedy, a staple on the Pens' third and sometimes fourth line, never scored more than 22 goals in a season, even as a junior. But with the big boys on the sidelines last season, Kennedy chipped in an NHL career-best 21. Early in training camp, he looked like he wasn't prepared to give up that moment, playing completely at ease with an invigorated Malkin and Sullivan. His emergence as a bona fide scorer will make decisions even more difficult for Bylsma and problematic for opposing NHL teams.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering fourth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• Any notion that Dan Bylsma was a flash in the pan after inheriting that 2008-09 Cup team in midseason was dispelled last season when he kept his Penguins on track even without two of the best players in the game.
Under Bylsma, the Penguins boasted the game's best penalty-killing unit, were tied for sixth in goals allowed and still ended up tied for the Atlantic Division lead (they lost to Philadelphia on a tiebreaker).
Bylsma was honored for his work with the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year and continues to be one of the brightest young coaching minds in the business, working constantly on his own communication skills and innovations to the game. It's early, of course, but it's hard to imagine Bylsma won't be in the mix to lead the U.S. team at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi if the NHL returns to the tournament. --Scott Burnside
Best bet: Kris Letang
The undisputed top offensive banana on the Penguins' blue line, Kris Letang is looking to mimic his scoring punch from the first half of 2010-11. Tallying 40 points in his first 45 games, Letang watched his production dwindle once forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sustained season-ending injuries. That's no coincidence. If the Penguins' offense is at full steam ahead, Letang could enjoy a banner season from start to finish. If not, he will just be pretty good as a fantasy asset. -- Victoria Matiash
Risky pick: Sidney Crosby
Crosby outpaced the field so much last season when he was on the ice that, until it is 100-percent confirmed he is out for a determinate time period, it's best to assume he'll play most of the schedule. New offensive weapons on the wings should bolster Crosby's game once he is healthy, and he was already on pace for career bests before his injury. At least one of James Neal or Steve Sullivan should find chemistry with Sid the Kid. Don't discount him much more than 20 games, which would still place him among the league's fantasy elite and make him a top-10 pick. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: James Neal
With Crosby and Malkin ready to return for the 2011-12 season, Neal's 30-goal potential will be realized, and possibly exceeded. With a goal-scorer's instinct, Neal represents an obvious upgrade over all the other Pens wingers and will surely have a chance to play first-line minutes and contribute on the top power-play unit. Expect a steep increase in Neal's shots on goal as well, since he'll be encouraged to finish off the passing plays set up by the team's talented center. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Penguins:
June 9: Re-signed RW Craig Adams.
June 28: Re-signed RW Pascal Dupuis.
June 29: Re-signed RW Arron Asham.
July 1: Re-signed C Tyler Kennedy.
July 1: Signed LW Steve Sullivan.
July 3: Signed D Boris Valabik.
July 5: Signed D Alexandre Picard.
July 12: Re-signed LW Dustin Jeffrey.
July 26: Signed C Jason Williams.
C Maxime Talbot (unrestricted free agent, signed by Philadelphia)
C Mike Rupp (unrestricted free agent, signed by Rangers)
LW Brett Sterling (unrestricted free agent, signed by St. Louis)
RW Chris Conner (unrestricted free agent, signed by Detroit)
RW Eric Godard (unrestricted free agent, signed by Dallas)
RW Alex Kovalev (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL's Atlant Mystichi)
C Mike Comrie (unrestricted free agent, career on hold due to injury)