Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Are Still the Favorite in the Eastern Conference

Shane DarrowAnalyst IIJuly 24, 2012

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 17:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates a second period powerplay goal by Evgeni Malkin #71 (not shown) against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 17, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With all the hype around the Atlantic Division lately, many people have failed to remember that the Stanley Cup Champions from 2009 are still around. The Philadelphia Flyers are more than likely going to land superstar defenseman Shea Weber, and the New York Rangers just acquired Rick Nash in a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets for basically nothing.

And it might not end there, Shane Doan could very easily end up somewhere in the Atlantic Division when he decides where he wants to sign.

Sure, the Penguins lost Jordan Staal to go play alongside his brother in Carolina, and in return got a substantial downgrade in Brandon Sutter to replace him as the third-line center, but people tend to forget one very key aspect to last season.

Sidney Crosby only played 22 games last year, and while Rick Nash played a full 82 games, he only had 22 more points than Sid at season's end. 

So while the Flyers grabbed Shea Weber and the Rangers got Rick Nash, the Penguins are getting the best player in the world back. And he has already developed chemistry with guys like Pascal Dupuis, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Who is to say that Weber and Nash are automatically going to shine as soon as they step onto the ice with their new team? They are completely unproven thus far and it can take years for players to understand a new system and develop chemistry with their teammates. 

Both players are all-star guys, but they both have spent their entire career with the same organization and this is their first test at relocation. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Nash crumble under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden after not being able to do any wrong in Columbus.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see Weber fail to adjust to the physical style of the Eastern Conference and especially the Atlantic Division. He is used to playing finesse caliber teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks

Sidney Crosby on the other hand, will enter his eighth season with Pittsburgh, and is more than comfortable in the system that has been built around him. He has averaged 1.4 points per game throughout his career and when healthy, will make a much larger impact that Nash or Weber.

The Penguins also have the NHL's MVP wearing their crest in Evgeni Malkin, who will only get better with teams having to find a way to focus on him and Crosby, as opposed to Gino seeing the top set of defensemen every time he steps onto the ice.

When you look at the defensive cores, the Flyers can not match up with the Penguins at all, and although Shea Weber will be a big help, it will be difficult for them to match up with Pittsburgh's depth, especially after losing Matt Carle to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen all had good seasons last year, and if Paul Martin can have a season that will convince Penguins fans that he is worth $5 million, he is another huge asset. Keep in mind too that up-and-comer Simon Despres is well on his way to be a starting defensemen in the NHL.

Looking in the net, I think the signing of Tomas Vokoun has been one of the most underplayed revelations of the offseason. Fleury will finally have some competition, and if he falters at all, there is still an accomplished goalie that is capable of handling any situation, which is something that wasn't there when Brent Johnson was the backup.

The Rangers are going to be the biggest test for the Penguins, as they can match up on both sides of the ice, and have Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. However, they have continuously failed to play well in the playoffs, which is something that can't be said for the Penguins, who have been in the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the last five years.

So don't fret Penguins fans, if the Penguins can stay healthy for an entire season, they will find themselves atop the Eastern Conference, and perhaps even etched onto the Presidents Trophy.