With just a few weeks left before the start of a new season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans are looking forward to a new season and new opportunities.
After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals only to be swept by the Boston Bruins, the Pens will be looking to take the next step and will rely on their superstars to make that step possible.
Having committed big money to sign their stars to long-term contracts, Pens GM Ray Shero and Pens management are hoping that their stars will rebound from their disappointing performance against the Bruins and bring the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh for the fourth time.
With that in mind, let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Pittsburgh Penguins' top stars.
Blessed with great agility and dexterity, Marc-Andre Fleury has produced amazing highlight reel-type saves since he first arrived in the NHL in 2003.
Able to cover post to post, Fleury often relies on his ability to read the play and his exceptional lateral movement to make saves.
While Fleury’s reflexes have made him an all star and Stanley Cup champion, his reliance on those reflexes to make saves at the expense of proper positioning has led to prolonged slumps.
As with any goaltender, Fleury has good stretches and bad ones. Unfortunately, in those moments when he struggles, when reflexes fail and a goaltender should fall back on fundamentals, Fleury seems unwilling or unable to do so.
Acquired from the Dallas Stars with the hopes that he would fill the trigger-man role on Evgeni Malkin’s line, James Neal has not disappointed, scoring 62 goals in 140 regular season games with the Pens.
Blessed with a knack for finding open ice and shooting lanes, Neal has meshed well with Malkin and his quick release has helped him become one of the premier scorers in the league.
Weakness – Lack of net presence
Although he is capable of scoring in bunches, Neal is also prone to extended slumps as he experienced early in the playoffs last season.
Having enjoyed great success shooting from the perimeter, Neal at times seems too content to stay there rather than take the puck to the net and simplify his game when mired in a scoring slump.
As one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, Kris Letang uses his incredible mobility to get to loose pucks first and avoid the forechecker.
Able to either skate or carry pucks out of the defensive zone almost at will, Letang is the key to the Penguins transition game.
Weakness—Lack of Consistency
As was demonstrated in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins, Letang can be pressured into mistakes by the more physical teams.
In addition, he has had a tendency at times to ignore his defensive responsibilities by attempting to always make the big play. To address this, the Pens brought back former-Pen Rob Scuderi to pair with Letang and help him find that consistency that is expected of a Norris Trophy candidate.
Perhaps not since fellow Russian Alexei Kovalev first played for the Penguins in the late 90's has the franchise had a player who can go end to end with the puck like Evgeni Malkin can.
Blessed with size, speed and the ability to lower his shoulder and turn the corner against a defenseman when needed, Malkin's ability to move through traffic with the puck makes him one of the toughest players in the NHL to defend against.
While his competitive fire makes him tough to play against, Malkin's inability to, at times, control his emotions have allowed teams to knock him off his game.
When faced with bad luck, bad play or bad calls, Malkin's focus seems to be on dropping his gloves rather than elevating his game, as was the case in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins. With the Penguins struggling, Malkin chose to square off against Patrice Bergeron and spent the start of the 3rd period in the penalty box instead of on the ice where he was needed.
Able to make any type of pass or take any type of shot needed, Crosby is probably the most complete player in the NHL and he uses his vision and anticipation to raise the level of play of his linemates.
While Crosby's playmaking is a strength, his tendency to look to set up others first sometimes leads to missed opportunities, especially when his linemates are struggling as they were during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins.
In these moments, Crosby's pass-first, shoot-second tendency causes him to forgo opportunities for himself even though the Pens would be best served by Crosby showing his 50-goal scorer form of a few years ago.