As a hockey fan, one of the great things about having your team go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals is the fact that the off-season is so short. While it hardly seems possible, the Penguins 2008-09 regular season is just 10-weeks away. That means that training camp and pre-season action is coming up just around the corner. The Penguins will be looking to defend their Eastern Conference Title and renew their push for the Stanley Cup, albeit with a slightly retooled lineup.
While there was much ado about the loss of some key players to free agency during the off-season, the Penguins have managed to keep their core intact. What is incredible in this day and age is that several players signed for less than their market value to stay and play in Pittsburgh. That speaks volumes about a team and organization, both in terms of their chemistry and in expectations of where they are going. The Penguins also had players like Miroslav Satan contacting the organization because he wanted to come and play in Pittsburgh. Certainly expectations are high for a repeat performance.
What remains to be seen is whether this Coach and group of talented young players can keep the magic going. I believe that they will. While the team has lost some valued players in Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa, Gary Roberts, Ty Conklin, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and others….they have retained Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and their whole defensive lineup. They have also added Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedetenko and Janne Pesonen to their ranks as well as some other role players.
Marian Hossa was an unfortunate loss, however, he was not part of the team as they powered through the regular season. Of all of the losses, I really hate to see Ryan Malone go because of his grit, determination and character. I think he (and his presence in front of the net) will be missed the most. Gary Roberts was a tremendous veteran role player, but spent much of the season sidelined with a broken leg and high ankle injury. Ty Conklin was a clutch player when we needed him most, but would probably not get a significant amount of playing time if Fleury remains healthy. I will also miss the tenacity of Jarkko Ruutu and the presence of Georges Laraque. Perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of this team is that they are still so young, and many of these talented young stars will only get better over the next few seasons.
Hopefully Sidney Crosby will remain healthy in the coming season, and will return to the lineup fully recovered from the high ankle sprain that kept him out most of the second half of last year. I never got the feeling that he was fully 100% after returning to the lineup, and injury requires the type of rest that only the off-season can afford. His injury was perhaps a blessing in disguise, however, as it showcased the talent and workhorse leadership of Evgeni Malkin and gave him a confidence that will allow him to flourish even more this coming season. The way that Marc-Andre Fleury played after coming off from his extended injury left no doubt that he is an elite goaltender in this league. I can only see his play last season as boosting his confidence and level of play for the season to come. I believe that Jordan Staal is on the verge of a breakout season. Last season, his offensive numbers were off from his freshman year performance, however his defensive play was impressive for such a young player. Near the end of the season, his offense picked up a bit, and I expect we will see a much more productive Jordan Staal in the coming months.
Miroslav Satan is a talented right wing who will likely benefit from playing alongside the talented Penguins’ centers. Ruslan Fedetenko is in the same boat on left wing. Both of these players are coming from the under-achieving New York Islanders team and have signed 1-year contracts with the Penguins. As such, both players will be highly motivated to perform, and will have a much stronger supporting cast than they saw in New York. I expect both players will have a strong season, with Rusty having a potential career high season if he can stay healthy. Janne Pesonen is an exciting prospect to add to the mix. Also signed to a 1-year contract, Pesonen was the leading scorer of the Finnish super league in 2008, scoring 78-points (34G, 44) in 56-games. A talented and fast winger, if Pesonen can find a spot on the roster, he might prove a valuable addition to the Penguins lineup.
The excitement that is Penguins Hockey will soon be back upon us. The new year will start in Stockholm, Sweden, where the Penguins will open the season with back-to-back games against the Ottawa Senators on October 4th and 5th. Then they will bring it back home with a 4-game home stand. I am looking forward to training camp to see how the team will look with the new additions, and what kinds of line combinations will result. The good news is that the wait won’t be very long.