September 24, 2010
Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene...
Last Season (47-28-7, 101 points; 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in the Conference)
After a summer of celebrating their third Stanley Cup championship, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't feel a hangover. Even though they had lost defensemen Rob Scuderi(notes) and Hal Gill(notes), as well as Petr Sykora(notes), to free agency, and then dealt with injuries to Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Sergei Gonchar(notes), the Penguins still managed to finish with 101 points -- two behind the New Jersey Devils for second in the Eastern Conference.
Even as the likes of Malkin, Chris Kunitz(notes), Ruslan Fedotenko(notes), and Kris Letang(notes) dropped in production, captain Sidney Crosby(notes) picked up the slack by posted a career high in goals (51) en route to sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Steven Stamkos(notes) of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Come playoff time, things weren't as successful for Sid and company. After scratching out a six-game series win over the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins were stonewalled by Jaroslav Halak(notes) and the Montreal Canadiens in seven games, with the series ender also acting as the final hockey game inside Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, their home since 1967.
As CONSOL Energy Center is about to be officially christened with meaningful hockey, can GM Ray Shero's defensive upgrades help trigger a return to the Final for Crosby and the Penguins?
There were a slew of bodies leaving the Penguins over the summer, but biggest of all was defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who had spent the past five seasons with the team. His departure means a new look to the power play, but a blueline corps that's better defensively.
Also not re-signed were Ruslan Fedotenko and trade deadline disappointment Alex Ponikarovsky.
GM Ray Shero's plan for the off-season was to improve the defense and on the first day of free agency he did just that. Bringing in both Paul Martin(notes) and Zbynek Michalek(notes) on five-year deals, Shero addressed the gap left on the blueline when Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi signed elsewhere a year ago. Martin will man the point in Gonchar's absence and Michalek will be that shutdown defenseman that was missing from the Penguins' lineup last season.
Walking the fine line up against the salary cap, Shero couldn't splurge on forwards after the Martin and Michalek signings, so he went cheap and snatched up Arron Asham(notes) and Mike Comrie(notes) one one-year deals for a combined $1.2 million.
You know what you're getting out of the Penguins' down the middle. Sidney Crosby will continue to battle for Art Ross (and apparently Rocket Richard's now) trophies. Evgeni Malkin, if he has shaken a bum shoulder that affected him last season, will continue to be next to Crosby in the scoring column. Jordan Staal(notes) will miss some time at the beginning of the year as he heals from foot surgery, but once he returns he'll be that developing dominant shutdown center. There's been talk of moving Malkin to the wing to help boost the top six, but Staal's injury has delayed that experiment.
It's a make-or-break year for Max Talbot(notes) as he enters the final year of his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Game 7 hero from the 2009 Final, Talbot was bothered by injuries last season causing him to dress in just 45 games. A strong penalty-killer, Talbot brings energy to whatever line he is on and his presence was missed last season.
Mike Comrie and Chris Kunitz are also looking for bounce-back years. Comrie, signed to a one-year contract earlier this month, is set to play with Crosby, sparking immediate thoughts of an increase in production. Kunitz could never get into a rhythm last season after dealing with injuries that forced him to miss 32 games.
The bottom line grinders were put together by Shero to make the Penguins one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. The addition of Arron Asham to play with the likes of Matt Cooke(notes), Mike Rupp and Craig Adams(notes) has increased the type of gritty play that the team will bring nightly.
Wrestler(s) That Best Symbolize the Team
Once a mid-carder with plenty of potential as Rocky Maivia, Dwayne Johnson turned heel and turned into The Rock, eventually blurring the line between bad guy and fan favorite. That's the Penguins. Hated by many, loved by some, they're a divisive team because of Sidney Crosby and the attention that's given to the franchise by the NHL ... and if you're looking for a "People's Elbow", there's always Matt Cooke.
Pittsburgh's defense took a hit with the losses of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi and finished 20th in the NHL last season (2.87 goals against per game). Shero immediately went to action on his off-season plan and signed both Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to bolster a blueline that will not have Mark Eaton, Jordan Leopold, Jay McKee, or Sergei Gonchar on it.
Martin will help guide the power play with help from Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski(notes), two young defenseman who the Penguins are expectingto step up their games this season. In Letang's case, it's hoped he can be a tad more selfish in certain situations to help increase his goal output that dropped from 10 to three in 2008-09.
With the overhaul on defense, there's room for one more blueliner to fill the No. 6 spot. Ben Lovejoy(notes) is expected to win that job out of camp after spending majority of the previous two seasons with Wilkes-Barre of the American Hockey League.
If there's one consistent hot topic in Pittsburgh, it's the play of Marc-Andre Fleury(notes). His signature problem of allowing soft, early goals and inconsistency make some wonder -- despite a Stanley Cup ring -- if he's an elite level goaltender. Still just 25 years old, Fleury has improved his rebound control and positioning in the crease over the past few seasons and despite the moans and groans of some fans, he's still good for 35-40 wins.
Brent Johnson(notes) signed a two-year extension with Pittsburgh last April and is a solid veteran netminder to backup Fleury and give him a rest for 20 or so games a year. In spot duty last season, Johnson was 10-6-1 with a 2.76 goals-against average. With Johnson able to handle that kind of workload for a backup, that should keep Fleury fresh enough to be sharp for the playoffs.
Match We'd Pay To Watch
IceBurgh versus Jean-Claude Van Damme: the "Sudden Death" rematch to officially close out the Igloo.
The Penguins knew exactly what they were getting when they acquired Eric Tangradi(notes) along with Chris Kunitz in a deal with Anaheim for Ryan Whitney(notes) two seasons ago. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward has been the talk amongst Penguins fans since the trade. Visions of a sustainable winger alongside of Sidney Crosby dance in their heads. With little room among the top-six, Tangradi will need to have an impressive camp to stick with the big club, but should injuries hit the Penguins, his scoring ability playing next to the team's talented forwards could give the rookie a welcomed introduction to the NHL.
There is a lot of buzz about the Penguins bringing in Mike Comrie to play as one of Sidney Crosby's wingers. The speedy winger have everything to play for as he's on a one-year deal, which many assume will give him the motivation to reach the goal scoring heights he met early on his career. But as we've seen over the years, playing next to Crosby doesn't equate to a Michael Jordan situation where the surrounding teammates become better. Whatever the reason is, Crosby has not been able to mesh with anyone for the long-term in his six-year career. Is Mike Comrie supposed to break that jinx?
Evgeni Malkin will turn you inside out and then serve you pierogies afterwards.
As if the Penguins' power play didn't have enough trouble (19th, 17.2 percent), now they'll have to deal with the loss of quarterback Sergei Gonchar. Taking his position as main man on the point will be Paul Martin, with help from Alex Goligoski. There was talk of using Evgeni Malkin in a "rover" role, but during last night's exhibition game against Detroit, he was back on the point.
The penalty kill, however, was good (9th, 84.1 percent). Pittsburgh will miss the services of Jordan Staal in the early part of the season, but once he returns he'll be reunited with Matt Cooke as the team's dominated shorthanded pairing. Bringing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on board will fill the gap left by Gonchar.
Less than 24 hours after Michel Therrien was fired, Dan Bylsma was behind the Penguins bench on Long Island as the Islanders won in a shootout. From then on, the next four months of Bylsma's coaching life was full of winning and ended with a Stanley Cup. Last season was a chance for him to break in his coaching chops. His calm demeanor at all times behind the bench and unwillingness to jumble lines every night - something that wore thin on Penguins fans under Michel Therrien - helped win over his players, who's bought into his system.
GM Ray Shero has the pedigree and bided his time long enough in the NHL before he finally got his chance to run a team. His arrival in Pittsburgh came not long after Sidney Crosby's and Shero has been able to surround his young captain with talent that has helped turned the fortunes ofthe franchise.
Every move of Shero's is calculated, with a reason behind each one that suits the team not just on the ice, but also in the locker room. He's made some moves that has paid off (Marian Hossa(notes)) and others that didn't (Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes)), but he's found a way to spend wisely for a Penguins team that's been right up against the cap for several years now.
2010-11 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B
Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)
There will be another Atlantic Division battle between the Penguins, New Jersey Devils and possible the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Shero's ability to upgrade the defense was a needed alteration to a lineup that's loaded with firepower. In the past, Pittsburgh's depth scoring has buoyed theiroffense when Crosby and Malkin were held off the scoresheet. While Shero brought added toughness to the lineup with the Asham move, can the bottom two lines provide timely scoring to take the pressure off of the top-six?
Pittsburgh Penguins' Entrance Music to the 2010-11 Season
After falling out of the playoffs in the second round last season, it's serious business time for the Penguins as seen by the moves made by Shero in the off-season ... serious like a Bill Goldberg spear and his march-like intro music.