As we approach the start of a new season, it's time for Penguins fans to put the what if's of last season in the rear view mirror and focus on what this season may bring.
Despite the disappointment of Jarome Iginla moving on to the Bruins, Pens fans have a lot to be optimistic about. Just a few months ago, no one thought that the Pens would be able to resign Evgeni Malkin to a long-term deal and still be able to afford Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang, but somehow Pens GM Ray Shero managed to get it done.
With the start of training camp just around the corner, it's time for Pens fans to get excited about this year's team and replace the disappointment of last season with optimism for next season.
With that in mind, let's look at the best attributes of the Pens' top stars.
As only the third goaltender in NHL history to be taken with the first overall pick (in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft), Marc-Andre Fleury arrived in Pittsburgh under intense pressure to validate that selection.
Unfortunately for him, not even winning a Stanley Cup (in 2009) has relieved any of that pressure.
Having struggled during the Pens last two playoff runs, many expected Fleury to be traded this offseason but Pens GM Ray Shero decided against that, perhaps because of the resiliency he has shown in the past.
As any Pens fan can attest, Fleury has had his ups and downs but he’s always had an ability to bounce back. After surrendering five goals and being pulled in Game 5 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals against the Red Wings, Fleury responded with two masterful performances in Games 6 and 7 as the Pens went on to win the Stanley Cup.
With two top-notch prospects (Eric Hartzell and Tristan Jarry) waiting in the wings and with Tomas Vokoun returning as the backup in net, Fleury’s resiliency will be tested like never before this year.
If he can bounce back yet again and be the championship-caliber goaltender he has been, the Pens will be able to take the next step this year and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Perhaps no member of the Penguins personifies the philosophical change that the NHL has undergone since the 2005 work stoppage and the subsequent rules changes than Kris Letang.
In the dark ages of the league, the NHL’s brand of hockey was confining and boring. It was a game of lumbering defensemen, two-line pass violations and ties.
Having undergone a reformation of sorts, the NHL decided to open up the game which placed a higher premium on speed and mobility among not only forwards, but defensemen as well. Enter Kris Letang, a third-round pick from the Quebec Major Juniors Hockey League (QMJHL), the same league that produced Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and is well known for their brand of end-to-end hockey.
As one of the new breed of mobile defensemen, Letang’s ability to pass or skate the puck up the ice made an immediate impact for the Pens. While he has always been known as an offensive defenseman Letang has improved his play in his own zone and received his first Norris Trophy nomination this past season.
With the addition of reliable stay-at-home defenseman Rob Scuderi this offseason, Letang figures to have more opportunity to display his skills which could result in an even better season from him than last season and his first-ever Norris Trophy.
Despite probably being the more-talented team, the Penguins lost in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals to the Red Wings for one reason, they couldn’t score the ugly kind of goals that teams need to be able to generate.
After losing Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts the following summer, the Pens need for gritty forwards who would play with a lot of heart and do the dirty work down low was even more apparent. To address this need, GM Ray Shero decided to deal prized defenseman Ryan Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks for forwards Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi.
While Tangradi did not meet expectations and has since been dealt to the Winnipeg Jets, Kunitz helped the Pens win the Stanley Cup in 2009 and has emerged as an indispensable part of the Pens. Along with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, Kunitz now forms part of the most dangerous line in the NHL.
While Crosby has provided the playmaking and Dupuis the speed, Kunitz has become the main net-front presence for the Pens, and he led the team in goals in 2013, the first time someone other than Crosby or Evgeni Malkin have done so since the two joined the league.
As a team that employs an up-tempo style that relies on puck movement and quick transition, the Pittsburgh Penguins place a high premium on speed. Fortunately, Pascal Dupuis has plenty of it.
Since he arrived in Pittsburgh in the famed Marian Hossa deal of 2008, Dupuis has become an indispensible part of the Pens due to his exceptional skating ability and his willingness to play any role on any line.
Having bounced around between lines for his first couple of seasons with the Pens, Dupuis switched from the left to the right side and found a place next to Sidney Crosby on the Pens top line. Already possessing one of the hardest shots on the Pens, Dupuis has used his speed, and the chemistry that he has shown with Crosby, to become a top-notch goal scorer.
At the age of 34, when most NHL players are past their prime, Dupuis is still on an upward track and tallied 20 goals in 48 games (which projects 34 goals over an 82 game schedule).
Perhaps not since Alexei Kovalev first played for the Penguins has the team boasted as deadly a shooter as James Neal.
Acquired from the Dallas Stars along with Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski, Neal has developed into a true sniper and consistently ranks among the league leaders in goals. Having shown a great rapport with linemate Evgeni Malkin, Neal has tallied 61 goals in just over a season and half worth of games, and his snapshot off the draw has become a staple in the Pens playbook.
Entering only the second year of a six-year/$30 million dollar contract, Neal will be with the Pens for the foreseeable future and there's no doubt his ability to find the back of the net was a factor in the decision by Malkin to re-sign.
Although there is a lot of speculation over who will fill the open spot on the line opposite Neal, there’s no doubt that head coach Dan Byslma will do everything he can to keep James Neal and Malkin on the ice together as much as possible.
While there is a natural tendency to proclaim Sidney Crosby as the hockey reincarnation of Mario Lemieux, in terms of playing style, Evgeni Malkin actually has that distinction.
At 6’3” and weighing 200 pounds, Malkin may be slightly above average in size as compared to the average NHL player, but it is the way he uses that size and reach that makes him, at times, unstoppable.
Possessing both the ability to stickhandle through traffic and a knack for lowering his shoulder and getting to the net, Malkin is capable of scoring goals in a myriad of ways and, coming off a down year by his standards, he will be looking to return to his Hart Trophy-caliber level of 2012.
Having signed an 8-year deal, which will most likely make him a Penguin for life, Malkin can now focus on his game and less on the distractions, and that spells bad news for the rest of the NHL.
"What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago...[Kane] is a much more interesting player."
While Semin may have been correct in assessing Crosby's raw skills, he missed the most impressive aspect of the superstar's game; his hockey sense.
It's true that Crosby is not the biggest or the fastest player and he may not have the hardest or the quickest shot. What he does have, however, is an innate ability to make the right play at the right time.
As a result of his legendary work ethic, Crosby has no holes in his game and his amazing ability to see the ice, anticipate the play and make the right decision at game speed is what sets him apart from the rest of the players in the NHL.