8 Pittsburgh Penguins Most Pivotal to a Stanley Cup Run
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are all franchise players that led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their last Stanley Cup in 2009. Numerous other players will need to step up to lead the Penguins deep into the postseason this year.
Chris Kunitz made his debut with the Penguins the year they won the championship. He had one goal and 13 assists in the 24 games of their campaign. His chemistry with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis makes him an offensive cornerstone this time around.
Of course, Fleury and Letang will continue to be vital to the Penguins defense. Between Fleury’s fatigue and Letang’s injuries, Tomas Vokoun and other defensemen will make the difference for an already offensively-oriented Penguins team.
Here are eight Penguins that will be pivotal in their team’s 2013 Stanley Cup campaign.
Tanner Glass is among the most valuable depth players in the Penguins organization. Centered by Joe Vitale on the fourth line, he has a knack for wearing down the opposition and can be relied on to skate opposite of even the biggest NHL superstars.
The “all offense, no defense” tendency of the Penguins, especially when the playoffs come around, has cost them in recent years. Glass is a grinder with a great defensive mindset and should help hold his team together defensively.
On top of all that, his aggressive style could be a momentum changer if the Penguins find themselves playing behind in the postseason.
Brandon Sutter arrived in Pittsburgh via a trade that reunited Jordan Staal with his brother Eric in Carolina.
Halfway through the season, Sutter has fit right into the Penguins system. He doesn’t shy away from shooting the puck and he shoots with great accuracy. With eight goals in 30 games this season, he’s approaching his career-high pace of about .30 goals per game.
Like Glass, his real value is in his defensive mindset. Sutter is an excellent two-way forward that is responsible on both ends of the ice. The young center has done well alongside the gritty veteran Matt Cooke.
In addition to being a key depth player, Sutter is becoming a reliable center on the second power-play squad. It isn’t shown on his stat sheet, but his ability to win key faceoffs has been the cause of a handful of goals for the Penguins power play this season.
Matt Niskanen has always been praised for his offensive abilities. He’s skilled with the puck both in transitions and in the offensive zone, as shown by the four helpers he’s recorded this season.
He’s also skilled in the back end, helping to round out the offense-heavy defensive corps. On the second power-play unit, his ability to set up plays is important because Paul Martin is just now emerging as a playmaking force.
Niskanen has fit in wherever head coach Dan Bylsma assigns him. Since the Penguins have already faced a few injuries this season, being able to pair him with anyone could be essential come playoffs.
The Penguins have made a habit of giving Marc-Andre Fleury an inordinate amount of the workload. Part of this was due to the lack of a stud backup goaltender.
They made strides to remedy this problem by acquiring veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun.
With 48 games in 99 days, Fleury would have been fatigued by the postseason.
Having Vokoun to take more of the workload takes pressure off of Fleury. Inconsistency in the net was a major factor in the Penguins’ early exit in the 2012 playoffs.
With Fleury having a little more down time, especially in this condensed season, the Penguins are in a better position to win it all.
At only 21 years old, Simon Despres has impressed during the 21 games he’s played this season. Currently playing alongside Deryk Engelland, Despres has proved to be a great utility defenseman for his age.
Despres can do it all. He’s quick and can move the puck well, which helps a lot on transitions. His offensive play has grown over the course of the season as he’s learned when to jump into play and when to protect the back end.
Another noticeable development in Despres’ game has been his physical play. At 6’2” and over 200 pounds, he’s become more and more accustomed to using his large frame to land big hits.
His all-around play will be valuable when paired with the Penguins’ depth lines in the postseason. He adds to both the grittiness of those lines, as well as the offensive threat of third- and fourth-line guys like Sutter.
Brooks Orpik has been a backbone of the Penguins’ defensive squad for years. His defensive play was a contributing factor to their Stanley Cup run four years ago and could be this year, too.
He’s currently playing alongside Paul Martin on the team’s top defensive pairing. Even when Letang was healthy, Bylsma still had Orpik and Martin on top.
As offensively stacked as the Penguins forwards are, they don’t need a ton of offensive talent at the blue line. In fact, what they need in their top pairing is Orpik’s ability to shut down the opposition when their top six forwards commit mistakes.
James Neal has been one of the most welcome additions to the Penguins roster. They acquired him from the Dallas Stars in the same trade that brought Niskanen to Pittsburgh.
Since then, Neal has found unbelievable success playing wing for Evgeni Malkin. The tandem was among the most lethal in the NHL last season and Neal played a big part in Malkin securing the Art Ross Trophy.
Neal is also one of the key elements of the Penguins power play, which is among the best in the league. In 2011-12, he led the NHL in power-play goals with 18. He’s currently in a four-way tie for first with eight this season.
Special teams are a major facet of any hockey game, but even more so in the playoffs. When Neal is stationed in front of the net on the power play, no penalty kill is safe.
Paul Martin was terrible at the end of the 2012 playoffs. He wasn’t playing the shutdown role his $5 million paycheck demanded.
This season has been a complete turnaround. As mentioned earlier, Martin has earned his way to the top pairing. Not only has he played the defensive role expected of him, he’s chipped in offensively, too.
Martin’s offensive prowess waited until he was 32 years old to manifest itself and the Penguins have welcomed it. In fact, he’s been so good that he’s taken over some of the power-play workload from Letang.
Above all, Martin has proved to be one of the most reliable members of the roster. He’s played in all but a few games and is just behind Letang in average time on ice with 25:14 per game.
As injury-prone as Letang has been over the past few seasons, the Penguins are going to need Martin healthy come playoffs.