Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Entering the 2011-12 campaign, the Pittsburgh Penguins knew they wouldn't have captain Sidney Crosby at the start. His concussion issues forced him to the press box until November and the second part of the Penguins' 2-headed monster, Evgeni Malkin, was coming off ACL and MCL surgery on his right knee. Not having Crosby around for majority of the regular season didn't hinder the Penguins one bit. The Penguins ended up with 108 points, one behind the New York Rangers for No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, but their season ended in six games at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round.
Malkin, however, wasn't slowed by anything as he enjoyed a career season that ended with hardware in the form of the Art Ross and Hart trophies. Crosby would end up putting up 37 points in 22 regular season games and played in the team's final 20 games, including the series against Philadelphia.
The Penguins enter 2012-13 with a healthy Crosby and while there wasn't much change in the lineup, GM Ray Shero has tried to reinforce areas of strength in the off-season. Still Stanley Cup contenders, can they take their regular season success and parlay that into another deep playoff run?
"If we can change Matt Cooke, we can change you."
The biggest move of the summer came on the opening day of the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. A day after he rejected a reported 10-year, $60 million offer from Shero, and the day before he got married, Jordan Staal was reunited with brother Eric in a deal that sent him to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the No. 8 pick that turned into defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
The second biggest move was Shero trading for goaltender Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals. It was obvious at times during last season that head coach Dan Bylsma did not trust Brent Johnson to spell Marc-Andre Fleury. Vokoun's veteran presence will restore Bylsma's faith in the backup netminder spot.
While the Staal trade happened at the beginning of the first round of the Draft, after the No. 30 pick was announced and people began filing out of CONSOL Energy Center, Shero swung another move, this time sending Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix.
Also heading out of town was Richard Park, who returned to Switzerland; Steve Sullivan, who inked a deal with the Coyotes; and Arron Asham, who completed his tour of the Atlantic Division by signing with the New York Rangers.
At forward … Even with Crosby missing 60 games and Jordan Staal missing 20, the Penguins still led the NHL in goals scored with 272. Malkin (50 goals, 109 points) joined Steven Stamkos as the only NHL players to hit the 50-goal mark, and the reigning Hart Trophy winner was the only player to break 100 points. As has been the case, strength down the middle will once again be a trait of the Pittsburgh offense.
In his first full season since coming over in a trade from Dallas, James Neal impressed the Pittsburgh faithful. Benefiting greatly from playing next to Malkin, Neal netted a career high 40 goals, including 18 on the power play, which led the NHL. Pascal Dupuis was once known as a throw-in as part of the Marian Hossa-to-Pittsburgh deal back in 2008, but he's carved out a niche with the Penguins and last season produced his best numbers with 25 goals and 59 points. Another career season was produced by Chris Kunitz with his 26 goals and 61 points. You can sense a theme here...
One of the many strengths of the Shero-built Penguins has been production from depth. Now departed Steve Sullivan (17), Tyler Kennedy (11) and Matt Cooke were all sources of goals last season, with the reformed Cooke posting a career best 19 while limiting himself to just 44 penalty minutes.
Hoping to contribute on both ends of the ice, newly-acquired Brandon Sutter will fill the Jordan Staal role as third line center. Sutter can chip in double digit goals, be strong in the dot, shutdown opponents' top players and assist on the penalty kill. Knowing his role and limits, Sutter should fit in perfectly. Tanner Glass comes over from Winnipeg and adds toughness to the fourth line.
On defense … In the six games the Penguins played against the Flyers in the first round, the team allowed 30 goals. The Los Angeles Kings played a total of 20 games en route to the Stanley Cup and allowed, you guessed it, a total of 30 goals. So, yeah, the defense and goaltending was porous and very exposed. Pittsburgh has a number of defensive prospects who may or may not play a role this season, but the unit as a whole needs drastic improvement.
Considering he missed 31 games dealing with concussion issues as well as a suspension, Kris Letang still had a strong offensive season (1o goals, 42 points) and played a career high 24:50. Still just 25 years old, his game continues to evolved, but the Penguins would like a little more consistency. His partner, Brooks Orpik, helped draw the ire of Rangers head coach John Tortorella after a knee-on-knee hit on Derek Stepan. The two will once again be Pittsburgh's top pairing and relied up for heavy minutes.
Like Dupuis, Matt Niskanen was viewed by many as a throw-in in the Neal trade, but in a season and a half he's made big strides and earn himself a spot on the blueline. The hard work earned him a 2-year, $4.6 million extension over the summer. Paul Martin was still a whipping boy among some Penguins fans and despite rumors of him potentially being traded, passing along three years and $15 million left on his contract will be a tough sell for Shero.
In goal … Marc-Andre Fleury has been the clear-cut No. 1 in the Penguins' crease since the 2005-06 season, but with Vokoun's presence on the roster now, he'll begin to feel the heat should he struggle. Fleury has played 67, 65, 67, and 62 games in each of the past four seasons. He's still young at 27, but knowing Vokoun is capable of spelling Fleury, Bylsma can map out a schedule allowing for plenty of rest as they head toward another postseason appearance.
It's never not a great day for hockey ... even in polka form.
Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma work together like peanut butter and jelly. Shero made some shrewd moves in the off-season and isn't afraid to tinker with the roster as the trade deadline approaches. But did he do enough to improve the defense? And will Bylsma continue to trust his players and stick to his guns when times get tough or will be choose to make bigger adjustments along the way?
You know what you're getting from Malkin. You know what you're getting from a healthy Crosby. But as he showed in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins will go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury will allow them. His three seasons since the Cup triumph haven't been great -- OK, last spring was disastrous. You know what you're getting from Fleury between October and April, but after that... what to expect?
Kris Letang has shown signs of breaking out offensively in each of the last two seasons. In 2010-11, he had a dynamite first half, including finding himself in Norris Trophy talk, but slowed down after the All-Star break. Last year, he dealt with a pair of concussions that killed momentum.
Paul Martin spoke after the season about improving his game, something that's earned him infamy in Pittsburgh. He won't do anything to wow critics -- he's not that kind of player -- but on a Penguins team that needs to improve defensively, he's a vital cog to help reach that goal.
Sidney Crosby would like you to believe that he isn't a vampire.
But if that's true, then how come he stalks the park on icy moonlit nights?
No one has ever come forward to say that Sidney Crosby exsanguinated them. But how could they? HE PROBABLY EXSANGUINATED THEM.
And if Sidney Crosby isn't a vampire, then how come he doesn't appear in this photo?
And speaking of photos, what's the deal with this one?
That photo is pretty damning, don't you think? But it's not possible for Sidney Crosby to be much more damned than he is. Because Sidney Crosby is a vampire.
Paid for by Ryan Lambert.
It'll be more of the same for the Penguins: Stanley Cup favorites, highlights galore from Crosby and Malkin, playoff berth. Rinse, wash, repeat. The hope is that there is defensive improvement to complement the offensive output that once again will be coming. The Penguins will again challenge for the top spots in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, but as it is with the NHL's elite teams, it's what you do in April in beyond that will be remembered.