Over the past month, there has been a lot of chatter that the Pittsburgh Penguins lost their best chance at the Stanley Cup by losing to the Detroit Red Wings this past season. Assertions have been made that the Penguins gave up too much in the off-season to be competitive for the cup again in the coming season. Many have highlighted the acquisition and subsequent loss of Marian Hossa and the departure of Ryan Malone as the main points in their argument. In fact, the Penguins are poised for another phenomenal season and have a better chance of being a cup contender this season than they did at this point last season. The following are the top 5 reasons that the Penguins will excel again this coming season:
- The Core is Intact: Despite the loss of Hossa, Malone, Roberts, Conklin, Ruutu, Laraque and Hall, the Penguins have kept their core young stars intact. This team was built around a young, talented core that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Ryan Whitney. All of these key players remain in the lineup, and all have been signed to long-term deals with the exception of Jordan Staal who could be signed to a long-term deal in the coming months. Crosby, Malkin and Fleury have already proven themselves as elite players in this league. Jordan Staal is on the cusp of a breakout season after posting less than expected numbers last season, but playing a masterful defensive game. This group of players is the core of the team around which the supporting cast has been built.
- Youth, Experience, and Confidence: The core talent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury are just 20 (soon to be 21), 22, and 23, respectively. Jordan Staal is just 19, Kris Letang is 21, and Ryan Whitney is 25. These players are still approaching their prime and will only get better in the seasons to come. Normally with youth comes inexperience and lack of confidence, as was the case over the past two seasons for most of these players. However, this team gained a tremendous amount of experience and confidence last season as they battled through key injuries to the lineup to come out near the top of the league during the regular season. Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Ryan Whitney were all put in clutch roles while the team played with an injury-riddled lineup, and they all matured and delivered in the process. In the playoffs, the Penguins went 12-2 through the first 3-rounds of the playoffs before losing in the Stanley Cup Finals. These young players have learned what it takes to get to the playoffs, and what it takes to go the distance. They have lived it first-hand. They will be a better team next season because of it.
- Offensive Talent: The Pittsburgh Penguins finished 7th in the league last season in goals for. This was accomplished despite Sidney Crosby, one of league’s top offensive threats, out of the lineup for the last half of the season and Jordan Staal under-achieving in his offensive play. Evgeni Malkin took the opportunity to come into his own and had a career season as a result, powering to the top of the league in points. This coming season, the Penguins will look to have a full season’s service from the double-threat of Crosby and Malkin. If Crosby and Malkin can both remain healthy, they will likely finish at or near the top of the league in scoring. The swing factor next season will be Jordan Staal. I am anticipating that he will break out of his sophomore scoring slump and put up a 25-30 goal season, partially closing the gap left by Ryan Malone. Petr Sykora will continue to be a sniper on wing with his stellar shot. Add to the mix newly acquired Miroslav Satan and Rusty Fedetenko, and I expect that the Penguins will best their offensive production from last season, despite the loss of Ryan Malone. Note that Marian Hossa was not a key contributor in the Penguins’ regular season success, scoring just 3-goals for the Penguins in 12-games.
- Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury had a slow start last season. Just after he was starting to return to form and gain some momentum in early December with 4-straight wins, he suffered the high-ankle injury that sidelined him for much of the latter part of the season. When he returned in late February, few people expected him to be able to bounce back from the injury and lengthy time-off. He quickly silenced any critics, however, by coming back and playing 13-games to end the season going 10-2-1 and giving up just 18-goals for a 1.38 GAA and impressive 0.945 save percentage. He then went on into the playoffs and posted a 14-6 record while giving up just 41 goals in 20-games for a 2.05 GAA and 0.934 save percentage. There is no question that Marc-Andre Fleury is an elite goaltender in this league and that he can perform under the pressure of playoff hockey. The goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury is sure to be a key factor that this team will rise to the top of the league again next season.
- Defensive System: Had I said this last season, I would have been laughed at. Last year I even called out the Penguins’ defense as their biggest shortcoming prior to the start of the season. Some people still may not believe in the Penguins’ defense, however, over the course of this past season I have become a believer in the defensive system put in place by Coach Therrien that the team plays so well. The key to the Penguins defensive system is not just the defensive corps itself nor the strategy employed, but the fact that the entire team embraces and plays it. As a result, it has been effective for the Penguins and flexible enough to allow the offense to kick in when turnovers and scoring opportunities present themselves.
There is plenty to be excited about if you are a fan of hockey, and even more so if you are a fan of Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey. Look for the Pittsburgh Penguins to return to the ice this fall hungrier than ever before to win. For the reasons noted above, as well as many other reasons, they are poised to excel again this coming season and for the next several seasons to come.