The Pittsburgh Penguins ended the 2011-2012 on a relatively disappointing note, despite a good regular season highlighted by the return of team captain Sidney Crosby and NHL All-Star First Team performances by center, regular-season leading scorer and MVP Evgeni Malkin and right winger James Neal.
The team practically fell apart in a first-round contest against the Philadelphia Flyers, exiting early from the postseason for the third time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
This offseason, the team pursued free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter but failed to land either, while signing grinder Tanner Glass and several minor league players and losing veteran forward Steve Sullivan and tough guy Arron Asham.
The team also dealt Jordan Staal, formerly the best third-line center in the NHL, to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for center Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, which they turned into another defensive prospect in Derrick Pouliot.
As the team prepares for the start of the 2012-2013 NHL season (providing there's no lockout), the Pittsburgh Penguins need to answer several big questions surrounding the organization to avoid another short season.
Sid the Kid returned from a lengthy bout with post-concussion symptoms after missing the second half of the 2010-2011 season and the majority of last season. He scored eight goals and added 29 assists in 22 games (including 12 points in a premature comeback at the end of November).
Before sustaining a concussion in the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic and possibly a second less than a week later in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Crosby had recorded 66 points in 41 games, including a 25-game point streak during which he notched an astounding 50 points.
The question remains: Is Sidney Crosby still Sidney Crosby?
Given a full offseason to train at 100 percent, the sky seems the limit for Crosby. He vowed to improve his faceoff numbers for the 2009-2010 season and watched his win percentage skyrocket from just over 40 percent to just under 60 percent. Case in point: If Sidney Crosby wants to do it, he can.
Evgeni Malkin emerged as the NHL's MVP in Crosby's absence last season, scoring 50 goals and 109 points en route to the Russian's second Art Ross trophy.
The big question for Malkin: Can he duplicate last season's dominance?
Malkin trained hard last season in his home country. He brought Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to work with him in Russia, helping him recover from surgery to repair a torn ACL and get ready for next season.
The results paid off, and according to NHL.com's Dan Rosen, Malkin thought it would be a good idea to train under Kadar again this offseason.
Malkin has spent much of his career living in the shadow of Sidney Crosby despite possessing unbelievable skills and ability. It will be interesting to see how the balance of power works this season in the Steel City, but there's no reason to believe Malkin won't put up lofty numbers again in 2012-2013.
Pascal Dupuis (right) and Matt Cooke (left) celebrate a goal.
Chris Kunitz notched 26 goals. and Pascal Dupuis netted 25 in 2011-2012. Aging Steve Sullivan put in 17 and third-liner Matt Cooke managed 19 goals last season.
Is it reasonable to think the Penguins' role players can put up 20 or more goals again this year?
Maybe, maybe not.
Kunitz is a legitimate 20-goal scorer when healthy. Anything is possible for Dupuis on a line with Sidney Crosby, but the 33-year-old hit the 20-goal plateau only once previously, in 2002-2003. The magical Matt Cooke is probably due for about 15, but much of his production was aided by the former best third-line center in the NHL, Jordan Staal.
The Penguins hope Tyler Kennedy can match his 21-goal total in 2010-2011 after scoring only 11 this season, making up for some offense lost by the failure to re-sign Sullivan.
The biggest concern for depth scoring has to be the loss of Jordan Staal (who netted 25 goals in only 62 games last season). His replacement, Brandon Sutter, scored only 17 in a full season last year, but in his defense, he did play for the Carolina Hurricanes.
It's hard to say which, if any, depth players will step up for the Penguins this season, but it's safe to say Crosby and Evgeni Malkin won't be able to do it all.
Paul Martin (left) and Kris Letang (right) celebrate a goal at the blue line.
The Penguins' blue line looked like a bunch of Peewees at times during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The apparent solution was to send away shot-blocker Zbynek Michalek and his $5 million contract, sign a few minor league players and put some faith in the deep and talented prospect pool.
Was the defensive play in the postseason a fluke, and will the Penguins' blue line be better this season?
The Penguins' defense allowed only 221 goals during the regular season, 12th best in the league, but gave up 30 goals in only six postseason games.
The Penguins re-signed Matt Niskanen, who looked pretty good in the postseason, and hope 2009 first-round draft pick Simon Despres is ready to become a full-time NHL blueliner.
Did the Penguins do enough to fix some holes in the blue line? So far it doesn't look like it. But maybe Paul Martin will finally start living up to his $5 million per year contract, and a healthy Kris Letang can put together a third consecutive All-Star season.
Can Eric Tangradi finally live up to his hype and play in a top-six role?
Zach Parise, nope. Alexander Semin, nope. Shane Doan, probably not. Outside of a big-time trade, the Penguins are essentially out of options outside of the system to fill a spot on one of the top two lines.
Andrei Kostitsyn isn't really worth the money or the hassle, and he doesn't fit well into the Penguins system.
So who's going to play on Crosby's or Malkin's wing?
Tyler Kennedy, no.
Matt Cooke, no.
Tanner Glass, no.
A prospect like AHL star Eric Tangradi (quickly becoming a career minor league player), up-and-coming University of Denver Pioneer star Beau Bennett, or Windsor Spitfires sniper Tom Kuhnhackl, probably not.
There is a glaring hole in the Penguins' top six, and it may lead to the team's demise. It's unlikely James the Real Deal" Neal will be able to match his 40-goal production of last season, and the Penguins desperately need another 25 to 30-goal scorer to fill out the top six.