The promise of a third straight run to the Stanley Cup finals ended for the Penguins with an embarrassing Game Seven semifinals loss at home to the underdog, an eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens team. Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled after permitting four Montreal goals in the first 26 minutes of a game that turned out to be the final contest ever at Mellon Arena. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for just five points, collectively, in the seven-game series.
Fast forward to September, 2010. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has never been shy about making changes and he knew he had work to do following the team’s early postseason dismissal. Gone from the Pens are the likes of forwards Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Blueliners Sergei Gonchar, Martin Skoula, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold are also no longer employed by Pittsburgh. Some of these players served as one-dimensional fill-ins that failed to consistently contribute. Others, like Bill Guerin and Sergei Gonchar, got too old, too expensive, or a combination of both.
Shero used his new-found cap money in a hurry to secure the services of defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to long-term deals. Both will help out on a defense as pliable as Silly Putty last year. Aside from Brooks Orpik, opponents faced little resistance at the Pittsburgh blue line and forwards felt a bit too comfortable in the Pens’ end.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury figures to be the main beneficiary of the team’s attention to defense. Fleury’s roller-coaster performance in 2009-10 necessitated the change in philosophy. Despite comparisons to Grant Fuhr and the run-and-gun Oilers of the 80s, Fleury allowed way too many softies that led to frequent defensive breakdowns. He still won the eighth-highest number of games (37) last year, but his peripherals such as goals-against average (2.65) and save percentage (.905) suffered immensely.
Little has changed at the offensive end of the rink. There’s no question that the Penguins are top-heavy with Crosby and Malkin, while lacking top-six forwards to support them. Crosby upped his goal output to a career-high of 51 goals, eclipsing his old mark of 39. Malkin went through various stages of slumps but still managed 77 points in 67 contests. His annoying penchant for taking ticky-tacky penalties allowed him to reach the triple-digit mark of 100 PIM. What’s scary about Pittsburgh’s offense is that no other forward totaled more than seven power-play points (Guerin contributed 18).
As a result, points will have to come from untapped or underappreciated sources. Jordan Staal netted 21 goals and 49 points (including only five on the man advantage) in 82 games. Setbacks in his recovery from foot surgery make him a question mark heading into the regular season. Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz will all be called upon to up their production. Youngsters Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Mark Letestu and Nick Johnson will all get their shot in training camp, with Tangradi the owner of the highest ceiling. Late summer pickup Arron Asham could occasionally find himself on one of the team’s top two lines. He’ll be given the opportunity to excel after putting together a surprising season in Philly.
Returning defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski will be another year older. Letang scored more goals in the playoffs (five) than he did in 73 regular season contests (three). Goligoski fell apart after a sensational October – five goals and 12 points in 14 games – but had just 25 points in 55 contests thereafter. If Goligoski finds a way to improve defensively, then his offensive game figures to continue to mature.
The Penguins are already up against the salary cap and the season hasn’t even started. Talk of trading Malkin heated up late in the season, but his offense would be tough to replace. Provided the newly-acquired defensemen live up to their billing, Pittsburgh could once again head to the Stanley Cup finals for the third time in four years.
THE BIG GUNS
Sidney Crosby (C): Considered by many to be the most complete skater in the NHL, Crosby went on to record 51 goals last season, allowing him to share Rocket Richard Trophy honors (most goals in a season) with Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay. But the glory didn't stop there. When Team Canada needed someone to step up with a goal in OT play for the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, it was Crosby who ultimately delivered. Remember, at 23 years old, ˜Sid the Kid˜ is just that, a kid, and one who has plenty more 100-point seasons ahead of him.
Evgeni Malkin (C): Hearing his name synonymous with Crosby's is a declining trend, for Malkin has created a name for himself. Even though the Russian wunderkind battled through foot and shoulder injuries last season, he still managed to put up 77 points (28, 49) in just 67 games. Realize that the upcoming season will be Malkin's fifth, and he has yet to record less than a point per game average in any given campaign. Interestingly, Malkin also served 100 penalty minutes last year, giving him a little more value in leagues that honor points for time in the Sin Bin. Provided health isn't an issue, Malkin could return to the 100-point club, once again, in 2010-11.
Marc-Andre Fleury (G): No player on the Penguins figures to benefit more than Fleury does following the free agent signings of defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. Fleury was hung out to dry more than wet laundry last year. Make no mistake, Fleury brought on many of his own problems. He won 37 games – eighth best in the NHL, but his peripheral numbers were nothing special. Fleury’s 2.65 GAA ranked 22nd among qualified goaltenders while a .905 save percentage put him 32nd among goalies. Heading into his seventh season, it’s easy to forget that Fleury is still just 24 years of age. He’s had issues staying healthy the last several campaigns, but the Pittsburgh netminder might be undervalued in fantasy circles heading into 2010-11. Fantasy owners that find Fleury falling their way would be wise to consider him as a buy-low value.
ON THE RISE
Chris Kunitz (LW): This pick is more of a public service announcement than anything else. Kunitz is one of a very few who is just about guaranteed of playing on one of the Pens’ top two lines with Crosby and/or Malkin. His numbers from 2009-10 are down (13 goals and 32 points), but that’s because he suited up in only 50 games last season. Expect the winger to return to his customary 55 points or so. Beware that there’s a small chance he gets dealt because of his salary. End of PSA.
Paul Martin (D): What self-respecting offensive defenseman wouldn’t love to help quarterback the Pens’ power play? Along with Alex Goligoski and perhaps Kris Letang, Martin figures to spend plenty of his ice time distributing pucks to Crosby and Malkin on the man advantage. With Gonchar gone to Ottawa, somebody has to pick up the slack. Gonchar, an elite fantasy producer, collected 50 points in 62 games. While Martin won’t approach those numbers, he should come close to his career high of 37 points.
TWO TO AVOID
Pascal Dupuis (LW): Dupuis is probably more valuable to his actual team than he is to fantasy teams. He played in all situations on all lines last year and produced 18 goals and 38 points. Unfortunately, that’s likely his ceiling as his grit and determination can only make up for a poor scoring touch. Dupuis’ slick skating makes him a nice fit next to Crosby, but the Pens need more offense than what Dupuis offers.
Tyler Kennedy (LW): Kennedy seemed to languish with a groin injury last season and failed to show off his Energizer Bunny work ethic. He finished with 13 goals and 25 points in 64 games. Kennedy comprised part of a celebrated third line along with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke, but there’s talk that he could be dropped to the fourth line. He’s been tried with Crosby to no avail.
Eric Tangradi (C): Tangradi underwent surgery to repair a severed left thumb tendon during the summer of 2009, and was unable to play at full strength at the start of last season. He acquitted himself nicely in his first AHL campaign, scoring 17 goals and 39 points in 65 games. His size (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) and speed make him an ideal candidate to play with Crosby or Malkin. Tangradi, 21, figures to get plenty of opportunity with Guerin gone and the team already up against the cap.
Mark Letestu (C): Letestu doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey or Simon Despres, but the Pens weren’t afraid to use him on faceoffs late in the season. Though he’s already 25 years of age, Letestu collected 116 points in 136 contests for the Baby Pens over the last two years.
Ben Lovejoy (D): Lovejoy will battle for one of the final defensive roster spots during training camp. He assisted on three goals and went plus-8 in 12 games with Pittsburgh last year. Injuries could give him a shot at regular shifts. At 26, Lovejoy isn’t an offensive stud but he could be a nice sleeper pick in deep leagues.