The lockout-shortened season hasn’t slowed the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are off to a stellar 7-3-0 start. It took a while for them to completely click, but it seems as if the Penguins’ top-six is claiming its rightful spot among the NHL’s most offensively-potent forwards.
Their lineup boasts Evgeni Malkin—the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy recipient—Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and plenty of other offensively-gifted forwards.
Combine that with the ever-improving offensive contribution from the blue line and the Penguins will be a fearsome opponent throughout the abbreviated season.
Let’s take a look and predict this season’s stats for the Penguins’ top 10 players.
Brandon Sutter is a fresh face on the third line and has already proven to be a major asset.
The third-line center is already being given increasing opportunities by head coach Dan Bylsma. His ability to win key faceoffs has earned him more time across the board—even strength, power play and penalty kill.
As the Penguins entrust the reliable two-way forward with more offensive responsibilities, his production should also increase.
In the past, Sutter has never hesitated to shoot the puck. However, he may take on more of a playmaking role given the amount of scoring talent surrounding him, so don’t be surprised if he piles on a few assists on the man advantage.
His numbers might not always show it, but it can be argued that Tomas Vokoun is the more consistent of the Penguins’ two goaltenders.
If he can continue to perform as strongly as he has through his first four starts of the season, the Penguins may consider starting him over Marc-Andre Fleury in some situations.
Playing 48 games in 99 days is going to be tough on all players, but even more so on the goalies. The Penguins have a luxury that few other teams do—they have two elite netminders at their disposal, allowing them to better avoid goalie burnout.
Having already registered a shutout early on in the season, it's possible Vokoun could see as many as 15 starts this season.
Games started: 15
Save percentage: .922
Goals-against average: 2.36
The Penguins have to be happy with Paul Martin’s performance in the first ten games of the season. After an abysmal showing in the tail-end of the 2011-12 season and the playoffs, Martin is looking more like he’s worth the $5 million they're paying him.
In addition to playing the shutdown role he was hired for, Martin has seen a nice burst of offensive production.
Assuming Martin continues to be a team leader for time on ice, he could continue to be somewhat of an offensive threat from the blue line.
Pascal Dupuis’ success depends almost entirely on his linemates. That said, he’ll be playing with either Malkin or Crosby throughout the season—mostly the latter—so Bylsma shouldn't worry too much about Dupuis contributing in the offensive zone.
Dupuis is more defensively-minded than many of the other top-six Penguins forwards. Still, he’s good at creating space for guys like Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
That’s not to say he isn’t talented in the offensive zone. His shot is as good as his pass, making him a threat to both set up and finish plays.
Considering the amount of shooting and playmaking talent among the other top-six forwards, there’s no reason to believe Dupuis won’t continue to be a decent scorer. Even so, he likely won’t approach the 59 points he posted last season, accounting for the shortened season.
Chris Kunitz has been on fire early in the 2013 season. He has 12 points in 10 games and scored a remarkable four goals against the Washington Capitals on Feb. 2.
After spending a few seasons held back by injuries, many believe Kunitz hit his ceiling when he registered 61 points in 82 games in 2011-12. So far, he’s proven he has yet to fully reach his scoring potential.
Kunitz has played alongside “Sid the Kid” in the past and it seems their chemistry is as strong as ever.
As offensively stacked as the Penguins are with Crosby back in the lineup full-time, Kunitz will likely be getting slightly less chances. He seems to be adjusting and capitalizing on the opportunities he gets, though, which should bode well for his scoring.
Last season saw James Neal breakout as one of the NHL’s best forwards. Playing alongside Evgeni Malkin, Neal netted 40 goals and helped on 41 others for a career-high total of 81 points.
Neal was a huge part of the Penguins power play. He helped make the squad one of the NHL’s best and led the league in power-play goals with 18. Even though Bylsma and company have been fiddling with his positioning during the power play, he’s still just as important.
Their experimentation with Neal on the point during the power play was short-lived and Neal is now back home in front of the net. Now that they've reverted back to that, there isn't much different from last season so Neal should remain relatively strong in his scoring output.
Marc-Andre Fleury had a less than ideal performance in the 2012 playoffs, to say the least. However, the Penguins’ franchise netminder is almost guaranteed to bounce back this season.
At least he better hope he does. For the first time as a Penguin, Fleury has real competition for the starting position. Tomas Vokoun should light a fire under Fleury and, in turn, make him better.
At the same time, having Vokoun as a backup allows Fleury to take some more time off. Fleury started 64 games in 2011-12, making fatigue a reason cited for his poor performance in the postseason.
In this condensed season, Fleury cannot afford to take such a hefty majority of the workload. This should help him greatly reduce the risk of getting burnt out.
Games started: 33
Save percentage: .911
Goals-against average: 2.55
Kris Letang is, by and far, the team’s most consistent and reliable offensive defenseman. He’s been plagued by injuries in past seasons and, assuming he stays healthy, is poised for a major comeback.
As always, Letang will be relied on to set up plays from the point—especially on the power play. Like Neal, Letang will continue to be a major component of the Penguins power-play unit.
In addition, the Penguins will look for him to use his pinpoint-accurate shot from the blue line to tally a few goals. He should end up with a nice sum of helpers with a few pucks in the back of the net every now and then.
In 2011-12, Evgeni Malkin led the NHL in scoring and was named the league MVP. However, with Crosby back in the lineup, one shouldn’t expect him to repeat that in 2013.
That’s not to say Malkin won’t be among the NHL’s top scorers.
After all, it’s hard to imagine Malkin skating beside Neal and not being a top scorer. The two were nothing short of amazing in 2011-12 and should continue to be a dangerous duo moving forward.
With Crosby back to his old self, Malkin doesn’t have the responsibility of filling that scoring void—making it unlikely that he’ll post the outrageous numbers that made him a scoring frontrunner.
“Sid the Kid” is back and ready to make an impact in his first “full” season since returning from his concussion issues.
Reuniting with Kunitz should lead both men to success all season long. The duo was great years ago and it doesn’t seem like their chemistry has gone anywhere.
Crosby also gets to skate with Malkin. The two superstars will play together on the power play, making for one of the most lethal man advantage lines. Throw in power-play expert Neal and Crosby has plenty of excellent snipers to set up with goals.
Nothing is more dangerous than a driven and motivated Crosby. After his return was tarnished by a sub-par postseason campaign and lockout, Crosby has to be ready to reclaim his position as the best player in the NHL.