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2012 Penguins Preview: Penguins Look to Elite Players to Lead Team

John Toperzer

John has written for since 2003 and serves as the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s worked for the Pirates for 17 years, written for the Penguins’ Web site as the first game-day editor, and rooted for the Steelers dating back to the Immaculate Reception.

Over the last quarter century, four different Pittsburgh Penguins have combined to win 14 of the last 24 Art Ross Trophy scoring championships. Mario Lemieux won six scoring races and Jaromir Jagr led the league five times.

Since 2006-07, snipers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have finished first or second in scoring five times in six years. Malkin has won two scoring titles; Crosby, one.

The team also employs a third elite fantasy producer at the other end of the ice in Kris Letang. Letang ranked 17th among blueliners with 42 points (10G, 32A) in just 51 games but only Ottawa's Erik Karlsson (0.96) registered a higher points-per-game average than Letang (0.82).

As always, only injuries can really stop the trio. Letang missed 31 games in 2011-12, due primarily to concussion. Crosby's bouts of the neurological and neck variety are well documented. Malkin missed seven games after undergoing offseason knee surgery a summer ago.
Nevertheless, IF these three players can stay healthy (and the word "if" merits capitalization) then another Art Ross Trophy lies in wait. With the tremendous number of games missed by Sid and Geno, it's almost become a foregone conclusion that one or the other will miss significant time every season. But hey, both stars are the healthiest they've been in years. In fact, a CBA-shortened campaign might actually help keep them healthy.

Wayne Gretzky compiled the NHL's highest-point total ever (215) at the age of 25, the current age of Sidney Crosby. A season with half that number of points would likely make Crosby owners happy, given his unique circumstances.
Fantasy teams have tried riding the coattails of Pittsburgh's elite talent with varying degrees of success.

Winger James Neal may or may not be considered an elite player but he certainly contributed a special fantasy performance in 2011-12. Neal notched 40 goals -- one of only four players to do so. He led the league with 18 power-play scores and finished second behind Malkin's 339 shots with 329 of his own. The former Dallas Stars forward probably won't hit 40 goals again, but there's good reason to think 30-plus is more than possible.

Chris Kunitz might be the most unheralded fantasy performer in Pittsburgh. As a top-six forward, Kunitz plays with Crosby or Malkin almost all of the time. Last year he potted 26 goals and 61 points while registering 180 hits. Could he put up similar numbers without the help of the big two? It doesn't much matter because he's set to play with no. 71 or no. 87 again in 2012-13.

Marc-Andre Fleury's fantasy value has always been tied to his ability to win a high number of games as Pittsburgh's undisputed top goalie. Fleury won a career-high 42 games last winter and appeared in as many games (67) as ever before. But that's not likely to happen again following a sub-par playoff showing which was partly attributable to his heavy regular season workload (67 games). Enter 14th-year veteran Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun was brought in to take over whenever the Flower wilts.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Fleury start about 55 games while Vokoun gets the nod in the other 27 for a 67/33 percent break between the two netminders. A reduction in Fleury's starts means he'll win less, of course, but his peripheral numbers like goals against and save percentage figure to benefit.

One of the biggest fantasy questions yet to be answered is who will take over on one of the two points during Pittsburgh's power play. Steve Sullivan was not asked back after a one-year trial. The diminutive winger did a nice job bringing the puck up the ice but was overmatched at the point too frequently.

Matt Niskanen may have an increased role, especially early in the season, but don't be surprised if one of the Pens' young blueliners finds his way to the man advantage.
Simon Despres is the frontrunner for an increased load. Despres acquitted himself nicely in his 18-game debut. With a hot start, Joe Morrow could force Pittsburgh's hand, though it's more likely he'll begin his pro career in the AHL.

Fantasy owners in keeper leagues will want to keep an eye on forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Bennett will make his pro debut with Wilkes-Barre and Pouliot, Pittsburgh's no. 1 draft pick in 2012, offers offensive potential.
Don't be fooled by the Pens' early exit from the postseason. The team led the NHL with 282 goals scored. Fantasy owners should expect more of the same in 2012-13.


Sidney Crosby (C): As Crosby fantasy owners are acutely aware, the star centerman missed 60 regular-season contests in 2011-12 due to concussion-like symptoms. When he was healthy, he led the NHL with a 1.68 points per-game mark, including eight goals and 29 assists in 22 games. Therein lies the rub. A healthy Crosby likely contends for his second Art Ross Trophy while a Sid with head and neck pain leads to fantasy zeros for extended periods of time. Heading into 2012-13, Crosby's reportedly feeling good and symptom-free, maintaining an excellent summer workout regimen. Risk tolerance will determine where Crosby goes in drafts for a player whose upside is nearly unrivaled. Do you feel lucky? Don't expect Crosby to last long on draft day.

Evgeni Malkin (C): When knee problems forced Malkin out for a two-week stretch in October, fantasy owners likely cringed. The Penguins forward played well in the preseason and had showed no signs of injury -- and then Wham! Fortunately, his absence turned out to be just seven games and when he returned there was no one better. Malkin won the Hart Trophy and his second Art Ross Trophy, finishing with 50 goals and 109 points. He led the league in shots (339) and finished second in power-play points with 34 (12G, 22A). The Penguins center averaged 1.45 points per game; 1.59 points with Sidney Crosby in the lineup -- including 16 goals in 22 games -- and 1.40 without Crosby. Fantasy poolies who include shootout statistics will want to take note of Malkin's 8-for-11 conversion rate, as well. The dynamic duo of Malkin and James Neal combined for 90 goals, and, while that number might be difficult to duplicate, expect big things again in 2012-13 from Geno.

Kris Letang (D): The phrase "breakneck speed" springs to mind whenever Letang's game is described. The Pittsburgh defenseman can take over a play in either end of the ice. He was on pace for a career-best season when a late November hit by Montreal's Max Pacioretty wobbled him and forced him out for over a month. Even so, Letang compiled 42 points (10G, 32A) in 51 games. As a fantasy contributor, Letang offers hits (83), blocked shots (86) and penalty minutes (34). More than one-third of his points came on the power play (4G, 11A) and he's worked well with Sidney Crosby on the man advantage. Because of his style of play, injury will always present a heightened risk for Letang. That said, he ranks at the top of the fantasy list among defensemen. Be prepared to burn an early-round pick for Letang's services.

James Neal (W): Neal was one of but four NHL players to pot 40 goals in 2011-12. He clicked with Evgeni Malkin from the get-go, scoring the Pens' first goal of the season off a power-play set up by Geno. His 18 power-play goals led the league while his 81-point total was good for seventh. Factor in 329 shots, 87 penalty minutes as well as 108 hits and it's easy to see why Neal's fantasy value is higher than ever. The power forward had a penchant for streakiness up until last season, but then again, he never had teammates like Malkin and Sidney Crosby to help alleviate those concerns in Dallas. Asking for back-to-back 40 goal seasons might be a little much, but there's no reason not expect another 30-plus tallies from Neal.


Simon Despres (D): Because of his 18-game trial with the Pens last year, Despres is the odd-on favorite among Pittsburgh defensive prospects to make his mark in the coming season. The 6-foot-2 defenseman averaged better than a point-per-game in his final three QMJHL campaigns. With Wilkes-Barre, he scored only five goals and 15 points in 45 games during his first professional season. He didn't look out of place on the Penguins' blue line, however, contributing with surprisingly solid defense and four points (1G, 3A). There's talk that he could see time with Kris Letang. If that happens then there's a chance that Despres could surprise to the upside right off the bat.

Matt Niskanen (D): Pittsburgh thought enough of Niskanen to offer him a two-year, $4.6 million deal in the offseason, which he readily accepted. The defender rebounded from a weak 2010-11 showing with a consistent game nightly last season. His counting stats were nothing special -- four goals and 21 points in 75 games -- but he'll see plenty of playing time as a no. 4 or 5 defenseman. He scored 35 points in his sophomore season with Dallas in 2008-09, so the upside of a 35-40 point season is possible, especially with a couple years of experience in Pittsburgh's defensive system under his belt.


Tomas Vokoun (G): Vokoun, who inked a two-year deal with Pittsburgh, has not been assigned as a set backup for starter Marc-Andre Fleury. He's expected to see more ice time than a typical Pittsburgh backup goalie, but just how much depends, in large part, on how well Fleury plays in front of him. For the majority of his 14 NHL seasons, Vokoun has played on mediocre teams in Nashville and Florida. As a result, he's had fairly poor goals-against averages with strong save percentage marks, finishing with a sub 2.40 GAA only once. His career .917 save percentage is better than six of eight seasons by Fleury, however. How Vokoun does in 2012-13 is a great variable. If he was younger than 36 and had less mileage on him, then it would be easier to see the upside he offers. Still, 20 wins or so seems reasonable for Vokoun while playing in front of a strong Penguins squad.

Brandon Sutter (C): He's no Jordan Staal, but fantasy owners may still find some value in the recently-acquired Sutter. The 23-year old figures to fill the role of third-line center quite nicely. He still has upside and it wouldn't be surprising to see him reach between 20 and 25 goals. Sutter will be counted on for his penalty-killing abilities, especially with the departure of Staal. He reached 40 points in 72 games as a 21-year old in 2008-09 and could match that number with the Pens. He also blocked 85 shots last year for the Hurricanes, a high total but one that adds a bit of injury risk to his game.


Pascal Dupuis (RW): Despite shuffling from line to line and collecting a combined 34 minutes of power-play time for the entire season, Dupuis registered career highs across the board with 25 goals, 34 assists and 59 points. "Super Duper," who took 31 more shots than in any of his previous 10 NHL campaigns, never scored more than 20 goals prior to 2011-12. Look for that total to regress back to his average of 15-to-20 goals. He may be ranked higher in pools because of his career season but it would be unwise to bank on those numbers once again.

Matt Cooke (LW): After sitting out a 20-game suspension to end to 2010-11 season, Cooke shocked many in the hockey world with his reformed style of play. The 34-year-old winger managed to stay in control of emotions and nearly scored as many points (38) as he accumulated PIMs (44). Cooke set a career high in goals with 19, but it would be unwise to bank on the feisty forward reaching that number once more -- it's unlikely (though not impossible) he'll line up next to Sidney Crosby again. He will provide his fair share of hits, however. Cooke registered 160 hits to rank near the top of the team. It would be a mistake to reach for him, but he's worth plugging into lineups for a week or two when injuries strike.


Beau Bennett (W): The first native Californian chosen in the first round of the draft turned pro in the summer after two collegiate seasons with the University of Denver. Bennett missed most of 2011-12 with a wrist injury and is still not yet 100 percent. Penguins coach, Dan Bylsma, mentioned him as a possible linemate for Sidney Crosby this year, but that was before Bennett looked ordinary in the team's rookie camp scrimmage and then said he wasn't yet healthy. Nevertheless, Bennett makes for a good pick in keeper leagues as he'll likely get a chance to show off his soft hands alongside Crosby. Bennett is expected to begin the 2012-13 season with AHL Wilkes-Barre.

Eric Tangradi (W): Tangradi scored one of the first Penguins goals in Consol Energy Center on Oct. 15, 2010, and hasn't potted an NHL goal since. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, the 2007 first-round pick's game focuses on close-quarter play around the net. His general lack of quickness is not an ideal fit for the Pittsburgh speed and transition game, but he could fit in on the power play. His best moments, rare as they may be, occur when he works the puck down low and controls the puck for what seems like minutes on end. Considering that he has one goal and five points in 40 NHL contests with the Pens, a trade might jumpstart his career. Unless the Pens switch systems, it doesn't appear Tangradi will produce much in Pittsburgh.

Derrick Pouliot (D): The Penguins selected Pouliot with the eighth-overall draft pick in 2012 which they acquired from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade. Pouliot is all offense at this stage of his career and will need to focus on defense. Fantasy owners can likely live with that description of his current skillset, however. A former WHL teammate of fellow Penguins prospect Joe Morrow, Pouliot collected 59 points (11G, 48 A) in 72 games for the Portland Winterhawks. Pouliot will take on greater responsibility with Morrow expected to skate for the Baby Pens in Wilkes-Barre. He's near the top of an impressive list of offensive defensemen in Pittsburgh's coiffures.