NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (see also Penguins eulogy): Second in the Eastern Conference (47-27-8, 102 points). Plowed through the first three rounds, losing only two games along the way before succumbing to the Detroit Red Wings shutdown style of hockey in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The sky seemed to be falling when Marc-Andre Fleury and then Sidney Crosby both went down with high ankle-sprains. Carrying the load until they returned were Hart Trophy finalist Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin, who before last season was most remembered by this gaffe.
A trade deadline acquisition of Marian Hossa put the Pittsburgh Penguins offense over the top and added another weapon to their already stacked arsenal. After coming up two games short of a title, that same acquisition took less money to join the Red Wings, which he believes has a shot to repeat this season. Hossa returns to Pittsburgh on Feb. 8, which should feature plenty of boos directed his way.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Sidney Crosby, although with the remarkable stretch put up by Evgeni Malkin when the Penguins captain was injured last year, you could definitely make a case for the Russian.
Crosby is the face of this team and will be as long as he's wearing a Penguins sweater and living in Mario Lemieux's basement (hey! just like us bloggers!). The team is built around him and general manager Ray Shero has been on a never-ending quest to find Crosby a suitable winger to play with. Marian Hossa worked perfectly for the short period of time he was in the 'Burgh, but the likes of Colby Armstrong and Pascal Dupuis just haven't cut the butter.
Can Miroslav Satan break the "Crosby Curse?"
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Jordan Staal. He's in a contract year and will be a restricted-free agent come July 1. After an outstanding rookie campaign where he potted 29 goals and 42 points, he saw his production decline to just 12 goals and 28 points as he found himself in a more defensive role.
Now, Staal is being given the chance to prove himself at wing on the top two lines. Just 51 seconds into the opening pre-season game against Tampa last Saturday, he put one in. You've got to believe a guy who can earn himself upwards of $4 million a year starting next summer will at least match his rookie year totals, especially if he finds himself playing with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): If we're talking about a player whose loss might benefit the Pens, well, there really isn't a player who fits that profile. Each of the numerous losses all contributed to the Penguins in their own individual ways.
If we're bringing financials into the mix, then you might say Ryan Malone. A 7-year, $31.5 million deal was just a crazy amount of money and years to invest into a guy who underachieved for most of his career and was in a contract year. I never trust guys who have career seasons in contract years; some may work, but most of the time, the player's contract year is the same time they reach the apex of their production.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Miroslav Satan will be counted on to be a suitable scoring winger for Sidney Crosby. Ruslan Fedotenko will likely find himself on the 3rd line with fellow newcomer Matt Cooke and Max Talbot. Eric Godard is a cheaper replacement for the NHL's reigning heavyweight champion, George Laraque.
The biggest mystery is Janne Pesonen, he of his own cult song. He won the Finnish league scoring title a year ago, but unless he puts on a scoring show in the pre-season, he'll likely find himself on the fourth line to start out, or even down at Wilkes-Barre (he's signed to a two-way deal).
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Matt Cooke replaces one of the leagues' best agitators in Jarkko Ruutu. The good thing about Cooke is that he's accepting of his role and doesn't plan on taking silly penalties like Ruutu did by running his mouth or throwing punches after whistles. He's also not afraid of Alexander Ovechkin.
Eric Godard won't bring any offense to the Penguins lineup like Georges Laraque could, but he'll replace the toughness that BGL brought. Godard might even stand up for his teammates a bit more than Laraque did as evidenced by his fight with David Koci after the Lightning forward checked Sergei Gonchar out of the game last Saturday.
Godard may also be the only person alive who can say they handled Derek Boogaard.
Teacher of the Year: It might have taken half a season, but the Penguins bought into Michel Therrien's system and style of coaching. His now famous rant one month into his tenure back in 2006, was the beginning of the overhaul of the Penguins. A season later, he coached the team to a 47-point increase and a playoff birth. Two seasons later, they were playing in the Stanley Cup.
The coach who's not fond of using plurals ("they soff") earned himself a three-year extension in the off-season from a general manager who inherited him as coach. Despite the fact that Therrien tends to juggle lines regularly, he's been able to find the right matches and create chemistry in the lineup. Now, with a handful of impact players leaving over the summer, it'll be up to Therrien to juggle some more to find the chemistry that led to the Penguins to success last season.
The Custodians (Goalies): Marc-Andre Fleury took a giant step forward in his progress last season. He ditched the yellow pads at the behest of an Ottawa-based optometrist, improved his positioning with goalie coach Gilles Meloche, and most importantly, cut down on the number of juicy rebounds that plagued him early in his career.
If Fleury were to get hurt again, it's time for Pens fans to enter Worry-ville. Dany Sabourin, in his second tour with the team, is unproven in only 29 career starts. He did pretty well last season in spot duty, compiling a 10-9-1 record, with a 2.75 goals-against average, and .904 save percentage. While Sabourin may be unproven, so was Ty Conklin just a year ago and he helped keep the Penguins alive last winter. Conklin had only started more than 15 games once in his career before last season and that was all the way back in 2003-04. Though, relying on Sabourin to mimic what Conklin did a year ago is a something Penguins fans don't want to deal with twice.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The blue line became more defensive in '07-08 and dropped their goals against from 2.93 (14th) to 2.58 (10th). Sergei Gonchar earned himself a Norris Trophy nomination and Rob Scuderi played his way into a valuable member of the defense corps.
That was last season. This season, Ryan Whitney won't be around until possibly the All-Star break and now Gonchar could find himself of the shelf for a while after injuring his shoulder.
Brooks Orpik will likely be given a heftier role in the meantime, but don't count on him for much offense. If Mark Eaton can stay healthy, he's a quality defensive who can soak up minutes. Kris Letang will need to become a bit selfish and not always look to pass first.
Pittsburgh has some depth at defense, but nowhere near the 24-goal production that Whitney and Gonchar brought to the table. Without their top two defensemen, it's up to Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to become the offensive defensemen they've been hyped to be.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Miro Satan. Much has been made about Satan's acquisition and the potential of his increased production by playing on Sidney Crosby's wing, but after seeing his goal-scoring decline over the past two seasons, there will be plenty of pressure on him. Satan may have lost a step and struggled finding his offensive groove with the Islanders the past three seasons, but all he should worry about is setting up in the slot, putting his stick on the ice, and waiting for Crosby to throw the puck his way.
Should Satan struggle, there's a slight chance Jordan Staal could find himself trying out on Crosby's wing and the Penguins only risked a one-year deal on the former Islander winger, so a trade-deadline acquisition isn't out of the question (Marian Gaborik anyone?).
AV Club (Media): Paul Steigerwald calls the play-by-play for FOX Sports Pittsburgh while Bob Errey, who had an unhealthy obsession with Gary Roberts drinking water, does the color. On your radio dial, the always quotable Mike Lange will have you laughing and confused with his wacky sayings, while former Pen Phil Bourque will regale you with stories like how he got his name on the inside of the Stanley Cup.
You'll find Penguin blogs everywhere you turn on the Internet. You've got Faceoff Factor, Confluence of the Three Rivers, Empty Netters, The Sweater Ted, Eddy Spaghetti, Sidney Crosby Show, and of course, the legendary ThePensBlog.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Can the Penguins overcome the Stanley Cup runner-up curse? Only one of the previous eleven runners-up have won a playoff round the year after losing the Cup. This is something that Pittsburgh will be reminded of all season long, especially if they should hit a nasty slump.
It's easy to believe they'll start the season off slow, what with a trip to Stockholm to kick things off as well as the loss of Ryan Whitney and maybe Sergei Gonchar for a while. There could also be chemistry issues early on with all the new faces in town.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A
Prom Theme: "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day. Last year was very memorable for the city of Pittsburgh and their fans. The numerous moments throughout the season will be ingrained in the minds of fans forever. The "Winter Classic," the undefeated run of Ty Conklin, Nicklas Backstrom's own goal, beating the Flyers 7-1, and Max Talbot's
overtime goal third-period goal in Game 5 will be hard to top in '08-09.
Expected Graduation: Depending on how Satan and Fedotenko produce, as well as how the defense holds up without Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins could wind up Atlantic Division champions or at least within the top five of the Eastern Conference. They played without Crosby and Fleury for most of the '07-08 campaign and turned out all right, even before they picked up Marian Hossa.
Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux finally have what they've been building for the last few years: an annual Stanley Cup contender. After coming up short last season, will the sour taste in their mouths fuel another deep playoff run, but ending in a better way for them?