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5 Keys to the Pittsburgh Penguins Being a Contender When NHL Resumes

Michael PrunkaCorrespondent IJune 13, 2016

5 Keys to the Pittsburgh Penguins Being a Contender When NHL Resumes

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    Despite being upset by the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are poised to be contenders whenever the NHL season resumes.

    Being eliminated six games into the postseason was a bit of a disappointment. However, they made some great moves in the offseason to address the weak aspects of their game that were highlighted in the playoffs.

    Their acquisition of Brandon Sutter in return for Jordan Staal has plenty of potential. In addition, the trade that brought in Tomas Vokoun should improve the team’s goaltending situation.

    Add that to what made the Penguins one of the top teams at the end of the regular season and they’re in a great position.

    Here are five keys to the Penguins becoming contenders upon the end of the NHL lockout.

How Jordan Staal’s Absence Affects the Team

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    The Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. In return, they received center Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the eighth overall draft pick.

    The most likely scenario is that Sutter debuts as the third-line with Malkin centering the second line and Crosby the first. This should give him plenty of experience and allow him to adjust to the Penguins’ style of play.

    Sutter won’t be the scorer that Staal is. The Penguins don’t need him to be. As more of a depth player, Sutter could contribute a valuable 40-plus point season from the third line.

    What Sutter really brings to the table is his defensive ability and physical play. Sutter will center a grinding line with Matt Cooke on the left wing and Tyler Kennedy on the right wing. He has a reputation as a player that coaches can put on the ice to halt offensive powerhouses.

    With the likes of James Neal, Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins won’t miss Staal’s point production much. Sutter’s defensive contribution may prove to be more valuable to the team—especially in the playoffs.

Can Marc-Andre Fleury Return to Form?

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    Marc-Andre Fleury has been a reliable goaltender for the Penguins since his debut with the team in 2003.

    Well, at least he was until the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

    The Penguins were eliminated in by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Fleury’s performance was a major factor in his team’s early postseason exit.

    At the end of their brief run at the Stanley Cup, Fleury finished with a .834 save percentage and 4.63 goals-against average. To say Fleury’s performance was deplorable is an understatement.

    Fleury played great in the regular season. He went 42-17-4 in the 67 games he played. The Penguins acquired Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals in an effort to put some pressure on Fleury. Hopefully having Vokoun back him up will give Fleury the push he needs to return to form.

Forgetting the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    Building off of Fleury’s abysmal performance in the 2012 postseason, the Penguins as a whole must put their mediocre run at the Stanley Cup behind them.

    The Penguins entered the playoffs heavily favored to win the Stanley Cup. Shock and disappointment permeated when the Penguins’ shot at the championship came to an abrupt end just six games into the postseason.

    The team has made some great moves during the offseason.

    They’re not the same team that got upset in the playoffs. Add in the fact that they were one of the top teams in the NHL at the end of the regular season and they shouldn’t struggle with a morale problem.

    To be successful once the work stoppage ends, they have to leave the past behind them.

Sidney Crosby Staying Healthy

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    Crosby suffered a concussion from consecutive head shots he received in January 2011. The concussion and subsequent concussion-like symptoms caused the Penguins’ captain to miss much of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.

    He made his return to the ice near the end of this past season. In the 22 games he played, Crosby accrued eight goals and 37 points. He also scored eight points in the six playoff games the Penguins played.

    Crosby also has to stay healthy for his own sake, too. With the amount of damage he’s taken to the head, the next head shot could end his career.

    It’s no secret how much the Penguins missed Crosby. Aside from his offensive prowess, Crosby’s leadership is invaluable. Having the captain back on the ice is an intangible when it comes to the Penguins being successful. 

Evgeni Malkin Maintaining His Scoring Pace

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    Evgeni Malkin did more than enough to fill the gap left by Crosby when he tallied 50 goals and 109 points last season. His performance was more than enough to earn him the Art Ross and Hart trophies.

    If Malkin can keep finding twine with Crosby back full-time, there’s no doubt the Penguins will be a force to be reckoned with. Granted, he likely won’t put up the same numbers if he isn’t the team’s sole offensive superstar.

    Even so, he still has the capability to score in large sums. His rookie season was the only complete season he’s played where he scored less than 100 points.

    Malkin and Crosby sharing a line would even benefit both. CBS Sports’ depth chart for the Penguins has Malkin listed as the second-line center.

    However, if Malkin and Crosby were on the top line, the opposition’s defense wouldn’t be able to put a lot of pressure on one player. They’d have to split defensive pressure between Crosby and Malkin because locking down one would likely leave the other with plenty of offensive opportunities.

    No matter which line he plays on, Malkin’s unprecedented scoring pace from last season could be key for the Penguins whenever the season resumes. 

     

    Michael Prunka is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and Sports Writing Intern. Stay up to date with him by liking his Facebook page and following him on Twitter.


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