The Pittsburgh Penguins have come a long way in a very short amount of time, a fact that can easily get lost in all the hype and the expectations of where this team could go from here.
Three years ago, Pittsburgh was 22-46-14, last place in the division and far, far out of the playoffs. Two years ago, a tremendous turnaround, 105-point season was overshadowed by a five-game opening-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then last season, when the Penguins were warned there were still lessons to be learned, they breezed to the Atlantic title and went 12-2 on the way to winning the conference crown. A six-game loss to a superior Detroit team in the Finals taught the Pens there's one last hurdle to clear.
The season was a success beyond the obvious. Sidney Crosby took on the team captaincy in just his third season and the responsibility didn't bog down his production or play one bit. Evgeni Malkin provided plenty of leadership himself, stepping up big time to be an even more productive player during Crosby's extended injury in the second half of the season. And Marc-Andre Fleury continued to tighten up his game, showing improvement in a number of areas to shore up his status as a top-flight No. 1 goaltender.
But maybe the biggest kudos go to general manager Ray Shero, who did what a lot of people said would be impossible – set a course to keep the amazingly talented young corps together contractually for years to come.
Shero may have received a little help in that Crosby and Malkin have deals that didn't break the bank. Yes, Shero had to make choices because not everyone was going to fit under the salary cap going forward, but it would appear he made the best decisions he could make under the challenging circumstances.
The Penguins will miss Ryan Malone's grit and versatility, not to mention his skill and veteran leadership while still a prime-aged player. They may miss Marian Hossa's sniping shot on the wing, but it wasn't for a lack of trying to re-sign the unrestricted free agent. They may miss Georges Laraque's policing, Jarkko Ruutu's agitating and Ty Conklin's timely back-up goaltending. But the fate of all great teams rests with the play of their best players, and the Penguins didn't lose any of them.
Crosby, 21, is signed through 2012-13; Malkin, 22, through 2013-14; defensemen Brooks Orpik, 28, through 2013-14 and Ryan Whitney, 25, through 2012-13, and Fleury, 23, through 2014-15. Granting an extension to Jordan Staal, 20, figures to be Shero's next order of business as the team's valuable third center is due to be a restricted free agent at season's end.
Shero has zero time to feel good about the future of the team considering the immense talent and non-pending contract issues because the misfortune of key injuries have already struck his defense. Already knowing they'd be without Whitney for at least three months following offseason foot surgery, the Penguins are holding their breath on the severity of a shoulder injury top defenseman Sergei Gonchar sustained during Saturday's exhibition opener.
It's never easy for the previous season's finalists because there is so little time off before the next season begins, but Pittsburgh has to hope the sour taste of losing at the end and that fact the roster is so young will help in terms of motivation and quick rejuvenation.
Last season: 47-27-8, 102 points, first place Atlantic Division, second place Eastern Conference.
The young Penguins came of age for certain. Pittsburgh gained revenge for an opening-round loss to Ottawa the previous postseason by opening the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the defending conference champion Senators. Pittsburgh rolled to 4-1 series wins in Rounds 2 and 3 over the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively, to win the East. After getting shut out in Games 1 and 2 at Detroit in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins rallied to win two of the next three – including a triple-OT thriller during an elimination Game 5 at Detroit – to extend the series. But Pittsburgh dropped Game 6 at home 3-2 to finish runners-up.
Imports: RW Miroslav Satan (2007-08 team: New York Islanders), LW Matt Cooke (Washington Capitals), RW Eric Godard (Calgary Flames), LW Ruslan Fedotenko (New York Islanders), D T.J. Kemp (Edmonton Oilers), D Joey Mormina (Carolina Hurricanes), RW Bill Thomas (Phoenix Coyotes), LW Adam Henrich (minors), D Danny Richmond (Chicago Blackhawks).
Exports: RW Marian Hossa (Detroit Red Wings), LW Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay Lightning), Gary Roberts (Tampa Bay Lightning), Georges Laraque (Montreal Canadiens), LW Jarkko Ruutu (Ottawa Senators), G Ty Conklin (Detroit Red Wings), C Adam Hall (Tampa Bay Lightning), C Tim Brent (Chicago Blackhawks).
Three keys to the season: Everyone is well aware of Pittsburgh's firepower and offensive prowess, but coach Michel Therrien doesn't get enough credit for making the Penguins defensively aware and responsible. He'll have an early challenge this season, especially if Gonchar joins Whitney as injured blue liners needing significant time to get well. Kris Letang has a splendid offensive flair to his game, and it makes perfect sense to pair him with the hard-hitting Orpik, but both will probably have to play more minutes than was the original design. A healthy Mark Eaton is a welcome addition while Rod Scuderi, Hal Gill and Daryl Sydor figure to log regular shifts while the team waits for reinforcements or the development of a younger blue liner including Alex Goligoski or Danny Richmond.
Second, the players acquired and plugged in to replace the ones who departed need to find chemistry and blend in quickly. For instance, Miroslav Satan suddenly finds himself playing top-line right wing alongside Crosby, who might have newcomer Ruslan Fedotenko on his left, too. Satan is being asked to replace Hossa.
Satan's goal-scoring has dipped, but that could be attributed to playing with a subpar Islanders' team of late. Matt Cooke is the new Ruutu, and he has similar pesky qualities that figure round out a third line. Eric Godard will be expected to be a physical force and Dany Sabourin needs to step up in a backup goaltending role that he failed to fill before Conklin got his chance last season.
Third, the stars are again going to have to be Pittsburgh's best players. Crosby and Malkin get a lot of attention, and of course they will need to continue to produce, but Staal would be a top-fix forward on virtually any other team so he has motivation in terms of gaining more ice time and progressing toward his contract extension. Petr Sykora produced 28 goals and 63 points. The Pens will need his support again. And Fleury has to be both durable and consistent over the long haul because Pittsburgh doesn't have as much depth at the goaltending position as it may like.
On the hot seat: Therrien received a deserved contract extension, but he still has to guide a very young and talented team through new challenges this season. The Penguins will be a marked team every night, and they'll have to overcome the efects of a short offseason both mentally and physically. Therrien might need to devise a new wrinkle or two on the power play if the unit's quarterback Gonchar is out for an extended period and Malone is no longer available to plant in front of the opponent's net. Most importantly, this is a team that is still growing, maturing and learning and Therrien must never lose sight of that fact.
Poised to blossom: All eyes will be on Goligoski early on now that the defense is depleted with injuries. The 23-year-old native of Grand Rapids, Minn., chosen 61st overall in 2004, made a splash in the American Hockey League last season by scoring a record 28 points in the postseason. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Goligoski isn't overly big for the position, but he has strong skating abilities, good vision and all-around skills.
Analysis and prediction: A lot of prognosticators see the Penguins taking a step back before leaping again forward. I don't. Don't judge the final results based on the regular season. Therrien and Co. realize it's a marathon and not a sprint. Maybe there will be other teams out there with better regular-season point totals in the East, but my gut says Pittsburgh is going to be an awfully tough out once the postseason begins. Age, enthusiasm, and most of all, talent is on their side. A second straight trip to the finals is in the offing.