It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
Two plays in the span of a little over a month changed the course of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2010-11 season. Heading into the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals on New Year's Day, the Penguins were flying. Between Sidney Crosby's 25-game point streak and the team's 12-game winning streak, the Penguins were positioning themselves as prime Stanley Cup favorites.
Then Crosby took two hits -- one in the Winter Classic and another four days later against the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and didn't play another minute of the season due to lingering effects from a concussion. On Feb. 4, Evgeni Malkin landed awkwardly into the boards after colliding with Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers and tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee and was done for the year.
What was setting up to be a Cup-caliber season was gone just like that.
But despite the absence of their two stars (and others with miscellaneous injuries), the Penguins' roster didn't quit. Players like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal (returning from his own injury) and Tyler Kennedy stepped up their games as they went 15-10-4 after the Malkin injury, losing out on the Atlantic Division title to the Philadelphia Flyers due to a tiebreaker. The 106 points (49-25-8) were the second-most in franchise history.
The manner in which the team battled through injuries helped earn head coach Dan Bylsma the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.
Heading into 2011-12, Malkin is healthy, but questions remain as to when Crosby will return and if he'll be the same player that was on a record-setting pace last season. If No. 87 returns like his old self, Pittsburgh will find themselves as overwhelming favorites in the Eastern Conference.
With players returning from injury and prospects that have been waiting in the wings in Wilkes-Barre, GM Ray Shero didn't make many changes to the roster from last season. Allowing tough guy Eric Godard to walk opened the door for former Edmonton Oiler Steve MacIntyre (seven fights, 93 PIMs) to become the team's new bodyguard.
After spending the past five and a half seasons with the Nashville Predators, Steve Sullivan signed 1-year, $1.5 million deal. Sullivan, 37, has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, but if healthy, can be an asset on the wing and chip in on the power play. Shero knows Sullivan from his days as assistant GM with the Predators and fits the mold of the type of character guy he likes bringing into the Penguins' room.
Latching on with two-way deals were Jason Williams (1-year, $600,00) and Richard Park (1-year, $550,000). When healthy, Williams can be a provide depth up front, while Park, who spent last season in Switzerland after four years with the New York Islanders, is a solid addition to the penalty kill. The Penguins would know as Park scored a 3-on-5 goal against them in 2007.
After rejecting a 3-year offer from Shero, forward Max Talbot took the longer (five years), richer contract ($9 million) to join the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers just hours after former Penguins star Jaromir Jagr did the same, also for more money than what Pittsburgh was offering.
Also taking their talents to a division rival was Mike Rupp, who signed for 3-years, $4.5 million with the New York Rangers. With Rupp leaving, Shero moved to bring back Arron Asham for one more season at $775,000.
Chris Conner (Detroit Red Wings), Mike Comrie (year off due to injury), Alexei Kovalev (Atlant, KHL) also moved on in the off-season.
At forward ... It's still unsure exactly when the two-headed monster of Crosby and Malkin will be back in the lineup together, but outside of that pair returning, seven players hit double digits in goals last season.
As the Penguins went through 24 forwards last season, this year, they'll have a full campaign from winger James Neal, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars in February for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Neal struggled to contribute scoring just once in 20 regular season games and once in seven playoff games with the Penguins. He worked out again with Gary Roberts over the summer, which means he should be primed for a 40-goal year.
Chris Kunitz (23 goals, 48 points) and Tyler Kennedy (21 goals, 45 points) each had their best seasons as Penguins, while Pascal Dupuis, the forgotten man in the Marian Hossa deal in 2008, continued to provide speed up front and timely scoring (17 goals, 3 GWG).
Jordan Staal only played two games with Crosby and Malkin in the lineup before injuries forced the 23-year old Thunder Bay, Ont. native to the top line. Staal thrived in his new role last season and he'll find himself likely in the same situation at times switching from focusing on offense to being the shutdown No. 3 center that's made him a valuable asset to the Penguins.
As the NHL ushers in a new disciplinary system, all eyes will on Matt Cooke. He's talked about being reformed since his season-ending suspension, and with new discipline czar Brendan Shanahan in charge, Cooke is on a very fine line. If he can stay out of trouble, Cooke is a vital cog, along with Craig Adams, in the Penguins' No. 1 ranked penalty kill. Pittsburgh was second in the NHL last season with 13 shorthanded goals.
Attempting to make longer stays of their time in the NHL, youngsters Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi contributed in parts of last season, but couldn't stick. Jeffrey, who is recovering from a torn ACL, showed signs of potential after scoring seven goals and 12 points in 25 games last season. Tangradi was a highly-touted prospect acquired in the Chris Kunitz deal from Anaheim in 2009, but has only played 16 games in a Penguins uniform. He missed 24 games last season after suffering a concussion against the New York Islanders and will have to have an impressive camp to make the club.
On defense ... Last summer, GM Ray Shero wanted to improve defensively and on the same day brought in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michaelk. The duo formed the Penguins' top pairing and led the team in blocked shots and shorthanded TOI. Pittsburgh jumped from 20th in the NHL in 2009-10 with 2.87 goals per game to 6th last season with 2.78 GPG. Same goes for the penalty kill that was No. 1 in the league last season with an 86.1-percent success rate.
For the first half of last season, Kris Letang was playing himself into the Norris Trophy discussion, but then cooled down while finishing with career bests in assists (42), points (50) and plus/minus (plus-15). It was a step forward year after his former partner, Sergei Gonchar, signed with the Ottawa Senators. Still just 24, Letang is coming into his own. Partnered with the defensive-minded Brooks Orpik allows Letang to take chances
In goal ... Marc-Andre Fleury dusted off a shaky start and finished his best NHL season with 36 wins, and career highs in goals-against average (2.32) and save-percentage (.918), putting him in the Hart Trophy discussion at one point. It'll be more of the same for Fleury this year with a fully returning top-ranked defense in front of him.
When he's not fighting other goalies or forwards, Brent Johnson is a very capable backup for Fleury, allowing him to take 20 games off.
"Rush Hour". An action adventure led by two dudes from different worlds. One's from the East. One's from the West. One is soft-spoken, one brings the charisma. Together, they make everyone involved filthy stinking rich.
Dan Bylsma's cool demeanor behind the bench and in the Penguins' locker room was on display during HBO's 24/7 last season and his players have responded to his methods since coming on board late in the 2009 season.
Shero likes to put the Penguins right near the salary cap, but with just enough room to make one of his patented trades around trade deadline time. Some were hits (Bill Guerin, Marian Hossa), some were duds (Alexei Kovalev, Alexei Ponikarovsky), but that hasn't frightened him off from making one last tinker with the lineup heading into the playoffs. With about $1.5 million under the cap, Shero has room yet again to make a late-season move.
There aren't many open spots up for grabs in the Penguins' lineup, but one who could make a difference later on in the season is defenseman Simon Despres. He'll start with Wilkes-Barre of the AHL, but after winning the Memorial Cup and the QMJHL's best defenseman award last year with Saint John, he's ready to contribute at the NHL level. Some professional seasoning in the AHL will do him good first, however.
"Riddle me this: why didn't Leahy pick the Penguin? That would have made a whole lot more sense."
It all went right for Tyler Kennedy last season. When Crosby and Malkin went down, the door opened for Kennedy to grab more ice time and do something with it. In a contract year, he did just that netting career highs in goals (21), points (45) and power play goals (7). His even-strength TOI jumped by almost two minutes from the 2010-11 season and his power play time went from an average of 17 seconds a game two seasons ago to 1:52/game last year. Kennedy signed a 2-year, $4 million deal over the summer, but with Malkin back and Crosby returning at some point, how will he follow up a career year?
Dec. 22 was a big night for Ben Lovejoy. He took part in his first NHL scrap with Shawn Matthias of the Florida Panthers, registered his first NHL goal during a 5-2 victory and also took a puck to the face. That night, the team flew to Washington and the pressure from the flight caused Lovejoy's face to swell, making him look like Chunk from "The Goonies" as documented by 24/7.
Pittsburgh is a contender even without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, but his arrival back in the locker room, as an unchanged Sidney Crosby, moves the Penguins from contenders to favorites.
The Penguins will be an Atlantic Division favorite and depending on if Crosby returns and at what level, they should be heavy favorites coming out of the Eastern Conference. The defense is again strong and the return of Malkin and a full year of Neal will help boost the offense. Fleury put up a career year as he continues his maturation into an elite netminder. The Penguins can't be discounted, even without Crosby.