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October 2, 2013 | 10:03am ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Pittsburgh
By Patrick Kearns, TheFourthPeriod.com

The Pittsburgh Penguins ran teams out of the building offensively last year. They were dangerous and dominant and up to a run-in with the equally elite Boston Bruins, they were soaring. Well aside from that lingering issue in net that will be written about approximately 30,000 times this season.

As has been the case since Marc-Andre Fleury got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh has had incredibly ineffective playoff goaltending. Last year, it finally led to Tomas Vokoun getting the bulk of the starts in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh has tried everything short of amnestying Fleury and going in a completely different direction. They brought in high-priced defensive talent to make his life easier, and it didn’t work. Now, they are stockpiling prospects and rebuilding their blue-line through the draft outside of a Rob Scuderi acquisition in the offseason.

The simple fact still remains that Pittsburgh has the best, and arguable second best offensive forwards in the NHL and as long as both can stay healthy, they should be regular season favorite in the Metropolitan Division. Of course, in Pittsburgh, the real season starts in April.

FORWARDS

Last year, Pittsburgh’s effective strategy was to bludgeon the opposing team with goals. It worked and they lead the NHL in goals per game. It was enough to lead them to a 36-12 record. The team sputtered against a hot goaltending in the playoffs when they faced the Bruins and Tuukka Rask, but throughout the season, the offensive talent of the club was never in question. This year, there will certainly be some depth concerns with the club, who needs better play out of their bottom six.

1. Sidney Crosby - Crosby is the top of the class for NHL forwards. He possesses just about elite everything and is the catalyst of the offense when he is healthy. He has had his fair share on injury issues over the past couple years however, but it’s tough to call a player “injury prone” when he’s had a few freak injuries. If Crosby is healthy, he should compete for the Hart Trophy.

2. Evgeni Malkin - Batman to Crosby’s superman, Malkin has his fair share of hardware as well. The elite forward filled the role of superstar more than admirably when Crosby is on the injury list and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a huge part of the club’s offensive success again this year.

3. Chris Kunitz - Kunitz exploded offensively last year, but a lot of may have been a product of playing alongside Crosby. Still, his offensive numbers where extremely impressive and if he can’t replicate them it’ll be huge for the team.

DEFENSEMEN

Along with the poor goaltending, Pittsburgh’s defense has struggled consistently in the year’s since winning the Stanley Cup. They added Douglas Murray in the playoffs to sure up the backend, which was the definition of a failed experiment. They have an elite offense defenseman in Kris Letang, who has had his own share of struggles defensively.

1. Kris Letang - There is no questioning Letang’s additions offensively and on the power play, however he struggled with defensive spacing and one-on-one defending at times last year. His was given a huge contract extension in the offseason, so Pittsburgh has to hope he rounds into a more all-around player. However, they still have an elite offensive-defensive locked up long-term, so it’s not all bad.

2. Rod Scuderi - Scuderi came back to Pittsburgh this offseason, where he won the Stanley Cup with the club in 2009. He was a mainstay on a strong Kings defense corps that won a Stanley Cup two season ago and Pittsburgh is hoping the veteran can provide a stabling presence on the blue line.

GOALTENDING

Well, here we go. Fleury has been arguably and above-replacement level goaltender during the regular season in his time with the Penguins. The former top overall draft pick has a Stanley Cup on a resume, as well as a 40-win season. Although the 40-win season is obviously more of a product of team success, he was at least there. However, Fleury has never had a season where he posted a better than .920 save percentage as a full-time starter which is worrisome.

For the bulk of the season, barring injury, Fleury will likely split a large amount of time with veteran goaltender Vokoun, when he’s back to full health, and whoever the team signs in his place (Ilya Bryzgalov?). It would likely shock nobody to see Fleury only finish with around 50 starts. It is a smart strategy, because it preserves both goaltenders for the playoffs. Of course, the real games begin once Pittsburgh gets in.

The goaltender who gets the call in the playoffs should be based solely on this year’s success at this point. Let Fleury earn the trust of the club again and show them they can win another Stanley Cup with him at the helm.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Penguins possess an elite powerplay, because they simply have too much offensive talent not to. If all the guys are clicking, they can throw Crosby, Malkin and 40 goal scorer James Neal out there, along with Letang on the point. Of course Bylsma may elect to spread things around, especially with the chemistry Kunitz and Crosby displayed together last year, but putting talented forwards like Malkin and Neal on the second power play unit sounds like a wonderful problem to have. Like meeting a kitten that is too cute.

Conversely, the powerplay may prove to be worrisome. The Penguins depth outside of their top two lines is grotesque. If the top six is getting a lot of power play and even strength time, it will be the penalty kill that suffers. Balancing minutes becomes a numbers game for head coach Dan Bylsma. Last year, the Penguins penalty kill was ranked 25th in the league. They have to hope their defense and goaltending will improve enough to at least bump them into the top 20. That or play absurdly disciplined hockey.

PREDICTION

As it stands, Pittsburgh is the favorite to win the Metropolitan division that is filled with uncertainty. Pittsburgh’s offense is good enough alone to carry them to a top two seed in the division, but with this club the real battle will begin once they get into the playoffs. It the top-line stars of the club hit any offensive rut, the club is in trouble. Fortunately for the Penguins, those things work themselves out typically over the course of a long regular season. But a playoff-time skid can prove extremely costly.

Despite all the talent up front, the Penguins are two injuries away from being a bottom-half of the division team. Both Crosby and Malkin need to stay healthy, or suddenly Craig Adams finds himself playing 20 minutes a night. If the team sustains any big time injuries they could be in a lot of trouble.

Patrick Kearns is the New York Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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