OUTLOOK - Uncertainty Clouds Penguins Fantasy Prospects for 2011-12
It’s been said that time heals all wounds but how much can the Penguins and Sidney Crosby really bank on an old English proverb? Crosby suffered at least one well-documented concussion, and perhaps two, during a five-day span in early January. Pens GM Ray Shero won’t rush Crosby back, making it clear that the superstar must be 100 percent symptom free before even advancing to practice. As a result, the organization faces plenty of questions heading into the season and fantasy owners are left searching for some answers.
A healthy Crosby puts Pittsburgh into the NHL’s elite class with other franchises like Vancouver and Boston. Crosby netted 32 goals and 66 points in exactly half a season last year, stringing together a 25-game scoring streak. But that was before he got hurt. Shero won’t let his star back on the ice until he’s fully healthy. Concussion specialists expect him to make a complete recovery, but when will that be? That time could be measured in days, weeks, months or even years.
Meanwhile, there is some good news on the horizon. Superstar Evgeni Malkin appears to be 100 percent healthy after missing the final two-plus months of 2010-11 with a torn ACL in his right knee. It’s not a slam dunk, even with Malkin. The Russian native has seen his shooting percentage drop in each of the last four years, from 17.3 percent to 12.1 to 10.4 to 8.2, respectively. He hasn’t looked like the same player who won the Art Ross Trophy with 113 points in 2008-09. The fact that he’s probably in his best shape since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup bodes well for a rebound season, however. With Crosby’s status uncertain and the team looking for production befitting a player with an $8.7 million cap hit, Malkin will be counted upon to pick up whatever offensive slack the absence of Crosby leaves behind.
Pittsburgh fashioned a 26-12-3 record with Crosby in the lineup and a 23-13-5 mark without him. The franchise won the most games in the entire Eastern Conference (49) with a strong team defense and a penalty kill that ranked first (86.1 percent) in the NHL. The organization maintained cohesiveness by instituting the same system at the AHL level that it deployed at CONSOL Energy Center. In other words, minor leaguers played the same game in Pittsburgh that they did for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After Crosby and Malkin, Jordan Staal, Steve Sullivan and James Neal headline the list of key forwards who figure to make a fantasy impact in 2011-12. Staal, an iron man prior to 2010-11, didn’t debut until the Winter Classic, due to a protracted recovery from a staph infection and a freak broken wrist sustained during a team practice. In fact, the Pens’ top three centermen --Crosby, Malkin and Staal -- all played in the same game just two times last year.
The book is still out on Staal as to whether he develops into a trusted offensive producer or continues on as a Selke-like two-way forward. Both options are good, but a healthy season at age 24 -- with free agency looming after 2012-13 -- might help nudge his game to the next level.
Sullivan represents a low-risk, high-reward free agent acquisition after the team missed out on Jaromir Jagr (see #JagrWatch on Twitter for details).
Sullivan’s biggest problem, at age 37, is staying healthy. He will be expected to help out a flagging power play that ranked 25th in the league with a 15.8 conversion rate.
Snake bitten doesn’t begin to describe the struggles Neal endured after coming over to Pittsburgh for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Neal scored just one goal and added five assists in 20 regular season games with the Pens. A full season in a new environment should work wonders for the 24 year-old, who did chip in three game-deciding shootout scores and netted an overtime game-winner against Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
Kris Letang leads Pens rearguards from a fantasy perspective. Perhaps no other player felt the loss of Crosby more severely than did Letang. With Crosby in the lineup, the 24 year-old collected 36 points in 41 games and without him? Just 14 points in 41 contests.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury returns for the second year of a five-year, $25 million deal. Fleury played poorly for more than a month before blossoming into the ‘tender fantasy owners have come to expect. His peripherals continue to improve -- Fleury posted a 2.32 GAA and .918 save percentage -- and those numbers actually seem to improve when Crosby doesn’t play, as the team pays more attention to defense.
Youngsters Dustin Jeffrey and Simon Despres offer the best fantasy bets to contribute from within the organization. Jeffrey totaled 12 points (7, 5) in 25 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’ll likely serve as a top-six forward at some point in 2011-12. Despres was the last cut in training camp a year ago and has shown plenty of offensive prowess for the Saint John Sea Dogs. The blueliner could start the season with Pittsburgh if Brooks Orpik doesn’t recover promptly from a second hernia surgery in as many summers.
The Penguins showed they can win without their best players last winter, but if the organization wants to contend for a fourth Stanley Cup, then it needs both Crosby and Malkin. Malkin will give the team a needed boost, but improved divisional rivals like New Jersey, the Rangers and the Islanders won’t make it easy on Pittsburgh. Will Crosby come back? That’s the biggest question in the NHL right now and the key to the Pens’ season.
Only time will tell.
THE BIG GUNS
Sidney Crosby (C): Crosby's health status is one of the hottest topics in the NHL heading into the 2011-12 campaign. A concussion short-circuited what began as a career year in 2010-11, one in which Crosby led the league in nearly every major statistical category at the time of his traumatic brain injury (TBI). With Evgeni Malkin occasionally at his side, Crosby totaled a Mario Lemieux-like 66 points (32 G, 34 A) in exactly half a season (41 games), good for 30th in the league and tying him with the likes of Rick Nash, Joe Pavelski, and a pair of ex-Flyers, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Prior to suffering his TBI, Crosby rattled off a 25-game point streak, which included 26 goals and 24 assists. He posted a career-best 19.9 shooting percentage and took an NHL-high 40.1 percent of his team's faceoffs (winning 55.6 percent). Crosby figures to play alongside Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, but the organization has added several options that could see time with No. 87, including Neal, Sullivan and Jason Williams. Crosby suffered an apparent setback in April, as he dealt with headaches that were believed to be the result of a sinus infection, but the fantasy stud has since resumed skating. Crosby's ability to stay healthy will go a long ways toward determining whether Pittsburgh challenges for a fourth Stanley Cup.
Evgeni Malkin (C): Reports on Malkin's recovery from spring knee surgery have been glowing. It appears as though he's in line for a fully healthy season, something the big forward hasn't enjoyed since 2008-09. Pittsburgh could certainly use his immense talent, especially after missing both Malkin and Crosby for the last several months of the 2010-11 campaign. When the center/winger did take to the ice last season, he rarely exhibited the top skill that earned him Art Ross and Conn Smythe trophies. Malkin finished with less than a point per game (37 points in 43 games) and saw his shooting percentage decline for the fourth straight season. Malkin’s not the slam dunk he once was, but perhaps his fall might enable fantasy owners to pick him up in the latter half of the first round or even in the second round. If that happens, be sure to snap him up. He’s a prime rebound candidate.
Marc-Andre Fleury (G): Fleury enters his eighth NHL season at the ripe old age of 27. After a miserable start to 2010-11, the Penguins netminder rebounded with a single-season best in goals-against average (2.32) and a second-best save percentage (.918). He lost six of his first seven decisions, but then strung together a 14-game unbeaten streak that included 11 straight wins. An improved defensive corps and the losses of Crosby and Malkin saw Pittsburgh change its strategy. Fleury came up big, rewarding the team with the most consistent regular-season goaltending of his career. Backup goalie Brent Johnson played nearly as well in goal, giving the Pens an opportunity keep Fleury fresh with an occasional night off. Pittsburgh looks to add a healthy Crosby and Malkin in 2011-12, meaning more wins for the Flower -- he had 36 last year -- and a bit more of a wide-open game in front of him. He's just entering the prime of his career.
ON THE RISE
Dustin Jeffrey (C): Jeffrey might miss the first month of the season after undergoing knee surgery in the spring. The 23-year-old forward tasted his first bit of NHL success in 2010-11. After struggling in his first couple go-rounds, Jeffrey scored seven goals and 12 points in 25 games -- most of those after the Pens lost Crosby and Malkin to injury. He doesn't have a guaranteed top-six spot on the team, but could work his way into the mix. Jeffrey is the most NHL-ready forward with a chance to produce consistent points in 2011-12. Check his health reports but be ready snap him up late in drafts.
TWO TO AVOID
Paul Martin (D): Martin's finest skill -- the one that helped secure him a five-year, $25 million deal with Pittsburgh -- doesn't translate well into fantasy hockey. Martin's pass-first mentality and puck moving-game give the Pens a blueliner who helps their transition game like no other. From a fantasy perspective, the former Devils player offers modest offense. He is fresh off a season in which he totaled just three goals and 21 helpers in 77 games. Those numbers will likely see a bump up with Malkin and Crosby back, but his career-best point total of 37 suggests he'll never become a big offensive weapon.
Matt Niskanen (D): Niskanen was considered a throw-in as part of the Goligoski-Neal trade, and he played like one as the season went along. Niskanen, a former first-round pick, is scheduled to make $1.5 million in 2011-12. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Pens move him at some point, as his defensive shortcomings became apparent with each passing game in Pittsburgh. He compiled 35 points for the Stars in 2008-09, so the potential for offense is there. Still, his four-point (1,3) production in 18 games for the Pens might not be enough to warrant his pay in 2011-12.
Brad Thiessen (G): Thiessen emerged as a promising goaltending prospect in 2010-11, going 35-8-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage for the Wilkes-Barre Baby Penguins. He's expected to battle Scott Munroe for the starting goaltender's job once again in the AHL, though Thiessen is the clear frontrunner. With Fleury entrenched as the starter in Pittsburgh for several more seasons, Thiessen might be used as trade bait. He could also serve as Fleury's apprentice once Brent Johnson's contract expires after the 2011-12 season, but Thiessen is no youngster himself at 25 years of age.
Tom Kuhnhackl (RW): Kuhnhackl ranks as one of the top three or four Pittsburgh prospects after a junior season in which he scored 39 goals and 68 points in 63 games. The 19-year-old winger will spend another season with the Windsor Spitfires after an impressive showing over the summer in the Penguins' prospect camp. He's still several seasons away, but he's not a bad stash as a member of the offensively oriented Penguins organization.
Beau Bennett (RW): Bennett, who will return to the University of Denver for a second season, looks to use an added 15 pounds of muscle for an improved sophomore campaign. The 2010 first-round pick, who collected nine goals and 25 points in 37 games, finished just eighth in scoring on his own team. The California native played well during the Penguins’ prospect camp in the summer. He could turn pro with a strong showing for Denver in 2011-12. Just 19, Bennett has plenty of room for growth and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him really establish himself as top prospect.
Keven Veilleux (C): Veilleux re-established his prospect tag with a strong summer prospects camp in July. He's got the size (6-foot-5, 218 pounds) and skill to compete in the NHL, but has taken nights off in the past. At 22, he'll enter his second full season in the AHL. Last year, he finished with 12 goals, 36 points and 122 penalty minutes for the Baby Pens. Another strong showing in the minors and Veilleux could hit the big stage of the NHL.
Joe Morrow (D): Pittsburgh's 2011 first-round draft choice, Morrow will likely turn pro in the next couple seasons. Given the lack of top-flight forward prospects within the system, Morrow's selection came as a bit of a surprise, since the team didn't have draft picks in either the third or fourth round. Morrow compiled nine goals and 49 points in 60 WHL games, and was ranked 12th overall among North American skaters. Poolies in keeper leagues might want to take a chance on Morrow, but only if they have time to wait.