It’s hard to believe, but hockey season is just a little over 3 weeks away! Everything is about to shift back into high gear for the Penguins’ organization as 47 players and prospects report to training camp this Saturday, September 12th, when they will undergo physicals and fitness testing. Practice starts on Sunday at Mellon Arena and is open to the public, free of charge. Pre-season play kicks-off shortly thereafter with the Penguins hosting the Columbus Bluejackets on September 15th. On September 17th, the Penguins travel to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a “Black and Gold” intra-squad game. Then, they return back to Mellon Arena to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on September 18th before heading out on a 4-game road trip to Montreal (Sept 21) , Toronto (Sept 22), Columbus (Sept 24), and Detroit (Sept 27). The Penguins’ open the regular season on October 2nd by raising the 2009 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters of historic Mellon Arena before dropping the puck against the New York Rangers. It will be the last NHL home opener to be played in the long history of Mellon Arena.
With training camp, pre-season, and regular season play nearly upon us, it is time to start looking at the challenges that face the Penguins in the coming season. First and foremost in my mind, is the question of fatigue. The Penguins have played a total of 208-games (164 regular season and 44 playoff games) in just the last 2 seasons. That averages out to about one game every 3.5 days over the last 2 years. The price to pay for a successful post-season is a short summer for mental and physical recuperation. Fortunately for the Penguins, they are a young team and they finished the post season relatively healthy. The mental recuperation, however, could be more challenging for both the players and the coaching staff as they need to quickly shift gears from the euphoria of being the league champions to being the team that everyone will raise their game against to beat. Often referred to as the Stanley Cup hangover, the Penguins will have to quickly come to grip with the fact that, while they have climbed to the top of the tallest mountain, they are now back at base camp with everyone else. It will take a lot of character (and a bit of luck) to battle their way back to the finals for a third straight year.
The next big challenge will be figuring out how to best fill the defensive roles vacated by Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. This will take time and evaluation by the coaching staff as training camp and pre-season play unfolds, and will probably continue to play out into the regular season. Surely the Penguins will look to off-season acquisition Jay McKee, a veteran stay-at-home defenseman with ample shot-blocking prowess. They will also likely depend on the services of Alex Goligoski on the blueline after the successful call-up role he played during Sergei Gonchar’s time on the injured reserve last season. But a McKee/Goligoski pairing may not be the right combination, so look for some mixing and matching in the defensive pairings in the early going until the right mix of “shutdown” and “offensive” styles are found. This challenge will primarily be one for the coaching staff to solve, but will require the defensemen to adapt to new roles and potentially new linemates.
The third challenge will be figuring out how best address the loss of Petr Sykora and (to a lesser extent) how to bridge the anticipated 2-month gap until Max Talbot returns from off-season surgery. The most pressing issue to sort out in training camp and pre-season is who to put on wing with Evgeni Malkin in place of Petr Sykora. While Tyler Kennedy certainly could be an interesting mix with Malkin, I don’t expect the coaching staff to disrupt the exceptional 3rd line chemistry of Kennedy-Staal-Cooke. Odds are that Pascal Dupuis will be called upon to step into Sykora’s spot, but don’t be surprised to see some different looks coming from the coaching staff through training camp and the pre-season. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see rookie prospect Eric Tangradi getting a practice or pre-season look with Malkin, but I really don’t expect it to pan out….at least not yet. A likely candidate to fill out the lower lines would be Luca Caputi, the 6’2″ winger that made the Penguins’ roster for 5-games last season. The good news is that the Penguins have significant depth to draw upon to fill in the few vacancies at forward, and training camp will be where those fill-ins get sorted out.
So, as hockey season bears down on us once again, it is time to get out your jersey and get ready for another great season from one of the NHL’s best and brightest young teams. Be sure to check back with us as the season approaches and gets underway as we will continue blogging about the team we love to watch and cheer for, the Pittsburgh Penguins!