After a short summer break, the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to hit the ice again as they get back to training camp this week. Over the summer, the team saw some significant complexion changes with the exodus of some key role players. Yet, despite the loss of Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Ty Conklin, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Adam Hall, the Penguins have kept their young core of stars intact and have back-filled the losses with some quality, proven role players. Among the new player acquisitions are Miroslov Satan (RW), Ruslan Fedetenko (LW), Matt Cooke (LW) and Eric Godard (RW). The Penguins also have depth in their organizational talent pool and added to it by bringing in some new prospects to include Janne Pesonen, last season’s leading scorer in the Finnish Elite League. So as the Penguins head into training camp, what should you look for in terms of new talent on the team?
There is no doubt who holds the top spot for the Penguins in net, as Marc-Andre Fleury silenced the critics last season with an outstanding run after returning from his extended high ankle injury. The question will be how soon he finds his form this season, as he has historically had slow starts. The big surprise last season was the play of Ty Conklin, claiming the #2 spot away from Dany Sabourin after Fleury went on the injured reserve for a couple of months. To his credit, Dany Sabourin didn’t play all that bad, but Conklin was flat out spectacular and stole the stage from Sabourin. One could even argue that Conklin’s play was partially responsible for Fleury ratcheting up his game to re-establish his top spot upon his return. With Ty Conklin now off the roster, Dany Sabourin has the opportunity to re-establish himself as the backup netminder. But the Penguins will likely be evaluating their options during camp with some netminding depth in the system. In my opinion, the only potential challenger for Sabourin would be John Curry. Curry stepped into the void left by Ty Conklin in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and put together an impressive 24-12 run in the regular season. He went on to backstop the baby Penguins’ 14-9 run into the Calder Cup Finals. I expect Sabourin will prevail out of camp, but don’t be surpised if Curry finds his way into an NHL game later in the season.
The Penguins defensive corps is the one area that remains largely unchanged from last season. The Penguins have been handed a significant challenge, however, with Ryan Whitney leaving the lineup for a minimum of 3-months (possibly up to 5 months) as he recovers from off-season foot surgery. Whitney’s role as an offensive defensemen will be missed, and will likely be an area that the Penguins look to address in training camp. The Penguins will be getting Mark Eaton back into the lineup after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, but Eaton’s forte is in defense and not in offensive production. There may also be some lingering questions about his durability after 2 back-to-back injury shortened seasons. Perhaps Kris Letang will find this as an opportunity to increase his offensive game, but he still needs to focus on perfecting his defensive game. Perhaps Darryl Sydor, rumored to be seeking a trade out of Pittsburgh, will be able to find the niche he was looking for by stepping up his offensive game. However, I still expect the veteran to leave Pittsburgh at some point this season. The most likely scenario in my mind will be for Alex Goligoski to find his way into the lineup coming out of training camp. Goligoski had an impressive year with Wilkes-Barre last season posting 38-points (10G, 28A) in 70 games with a +15 rating. He also netted 28-points (4G, 24A) in 23 playoff games with a +5 rating. He also made his NHL debut last season, getting 2-assists in his 3 outings. Other defensemen to watch at camp would be Alex Grant, TJ Kemp, Deryk Engelland, and Ben Lovejoy.
The Penguins offense remains strong despite the loss of wingers Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone. In particular, they are rock solid down the center with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Maxime Talbot. With Hossa and Malone out of the lineup, along with Roberts, Hall, Laraque, and Ruutu, the Penguins will use training camp to assess and shore up the wings. They will look to off-season acqusitions Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedetenko to fill the void in the top lines. It remains to be seen how well they will mesh with the talented Penguins’ centermen or how long it will take for the chemistry to develop, but it seems likely that they will flourish alongside Crosby and/or Malkin. Elsewhere on wing, the Penguins have retained Petr Sykora, Jeff Taffe, Pascal Dupuis, and Tyler Kennedy, and have added newcomers Eric Godard and Matt Cooke. The latter two were acquired to backfill the loss of Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu. Look for the Penguins management to really test out the combinations in camp, and to evaluate the talent they have within the system to find a set of wingers that work. Perhaps the biggest and most anticipated wild card is Janne Pesonen, the Left Wing top scorer from the Finnish Elite League. He will likely be the center of much attention and speculation as to a potential bid in the lineup. The Penguins also have several NHL-tested prospects as a result of last season’s extensive injuries that will have a viable opportunity to break into the lineup. This includes Connor James, Jonathan Filewich, Chris Minard, and Ryan Stone. I would expect as many as 2-3 lower line wing positions in play going into training camp, with the burden being on the prospects to prove their case for being in the lineup.
After last season’s challenges and ultimate success, I anxiously look forward to the start of the season. The changes in the complexion of this team add to the excitement and uncertainty of what the new season will bring. Training Camp will be the first, short glimpse before the season starts in just 3-quick weeks. This coming season is sure to be exciting and will answer all of our current questions. WIll Sidney Crosby be 100% recovered from the high ankle injury of last season? Will Evgeni Malkin power back to the top of the points race after recharging his batteries in the off-season? Will Jordan Staal ditch the sophomore slump and have a breakout year? Will Marc-Andre Fleury shake off any early season jitters and will he be able to build on last year’s spectacular playoff run? How will Miroslav Satan and Rusty Fedotenko fit in and produce? Who will step up offensively on defense? Will someone break into the lineup and be an enexpected force this season? Who will be the enforcer? Will the Penguins start slow and finish strong? So many questions that will only be answerd in time! Hockey is upon us! Let’s Go Penguins!