NHL Free Agency: Why the Penguins Need to Build for a Deep Playoff Run in 2013

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NHL Free Agency: Why the Penguins Need to Build for a Deep Playoff Run in 2013
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Not too long ago, the Penguins were parading through Pittsburgh with the sport's greatest trophy: the Stanley Cup.

After a stretch of futility from 2002-2006, the Penguins quickly emerged as one of the league's elite teams due to high draft picks and good management. After getting soundly beaten by the Ottawa Senators in 2007, the Penguins' first playoff appearance in six years, they marched to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and won the Stanley Cup a year later.

It seems that the Penguins have been considered the Stanley Cup favorites before every season and every postseason since that 2009 Stanley Cup, but they have definitely not lived up to the expectations come playoff time.

They have been great every regular season, and consistent at that: they have been the fourth seed every year since 2009, despite three different teams winning the division in that four-year span. 2011 was the Penguins' best regular season since the Lemieux-Jagr era, despite missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the season, and 2012 was even more successful despite missing Crosby for three-quarters of the season.

Since 2010, however, the playoffs have been a completely different story.

The Penguins' only playoff series win since their title came in 2010, against the Ottawa Senators. They then went on to lose to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

Is it fair to call the Penguins teams since 2010 chokes?

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2011 seemed even worse, as the Penguins held a three-games-to-one series lead against Tampa Bay, only to lose the next three games in a row, two of which were home losses by scores of 8-1 and 1-0.

In 2012, the Penguins put themselves in a hole too deep to crawl out of against their arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers. After taking a 3-0 lead in Game One at home, the Penguins surrendered four goals and lost by a score of 4-3. They then went on to give up eight goals in each of the next two games, as the Flyers took a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. While Pittsburgh won the next two games, the Flyers finished them off with a 5-1 thrashing in Game 6.

Here's a list of four teams to think about: Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and perennial "chokes" the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals.

Since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, each of these four teams has won more playoff series than Pittsburgh.

Not the same amount. More.

Now, since Pittsburgh has a Stanley Cup in recent years, it is not exactly fair to call them a "choke" like some call San Jose and Washington, but if you're talking about the past three seasons, they have been as much of a choke as anyone else could be.

This is why this offseason, and more particularly the next two weeks, is extremely important to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Who will win the 2013 Stanley Cup?

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This team knows how to win. They have shown it in the regular season, and in the playoffs in 2008 and 2009. But now they need to make some changes in order to regain that playoff dominance that fans are expecting from them.

It seems like the management has gotten the memo: the Penguins have traded Jordan Staal and Zbynek Michalek, and are looking to trade Paul Martin in order to free up more cap space. This could be to potentially sign free agents Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and/or Alexander Semin.

Suter is obviously who the Pens need most. The Flyers exposed in last year's playoffs that no matter how much the Penguins can score, they need to play defense to be able to contend. They can score four or five goals every game, but if they are giving up just as many or more come playoff time, their high-powered offense won't even matter.

2013 is a key season for the Penguins, as it will be about the fourth year in a row that most experts will predict them to win the Stanley Cup despite playoff struggles as of late. Will they be able to live up to their expectations this time? It all depends on what happens in the next two weeks.

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