This coming Thursday night, on Oct. 3, the Pittsburgh Penguins will open their 2013-14 season. Like every year, there will be some questions surrounding them as they once again look to get off to a fast start.
The Penguins come into the season with a popular defenseman back in their lineup and a coach who received a contract extension despite a poor playoff performance. They'll be looking for contributions from the usual cast of stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but depth players will also have to do their part to get the team in the playoffs once again.
Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how the team makes itself stand out in a more crowded and competitive Metropolitan Division.
Here are some storylines that will be unfolding as the Penguins get ready to drop the puck against the New Jersey Devils in just under a week.
The last time Crosby played close to a full, 82-game season was in 2009-10, when he played 81 games and had 109 points. Since then, he has been plagued by injury problems, most notably a concussion suffered at the 2011 Winter Classic.
Just when everyone thought Crosby had put his concussion symptoms behind him, the injury bug struck again in the lockout-shortened season. He broke his jaw and missed 12 regular-season games as a result, as well as the first game of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with the New York Islanders.
Now that there will be a full slate of games in 2013-14, Crosby will no doubt try to stay in top form. This is also an Olympic year, and he will likely be representing Canada in Sochi. In the 2010 Games, he scored the winning goal in the gold medal game against the USA. He is competitive and knows what it takes to come through in the clutch.
Even when he's struggling with injuries, he is still productive. For example, he had 56 points in 36 games last year, an average of 1.6 points per game. If Crosby can stay in the Penguins lineup, he will be a more formidable force than ever.
The short (and perhaps most obvious) answer would be no. After all, why would general manager Ray Shero give an extension to a coach he didn't have full faith in?
However, a contract extension is no guarantee of a job. Michel Therrien earned one after the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, and he was still fired in February of 2009 when the Pens were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and out of a playoff spot.
Bylsma has a 201-92-25 record as the Pens head coach and is entering his fifth full season behind the bench. He has guided the team to a Stanley Cup and two division titles, and the fans are hungrier for more championship success as a result.
But the last two playoff runs have not gone well for the Penguins. They were bounced in the first round in 2012 against the Philadelphia Flyers in a fight-filled series. Then, last season, they struggled with an upstart New York Islanders team, but still managed to beat them in six games in the conference quarterfinals.
The last straw came against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Thanks to the remarkable goaltending of Tuukka Rask, the Pens were swept in four games and scored just two goals the whole series.
Coaches need to excel in both the playoffs and the regular season, and ever since 2009, Bylsma has only shown he has one of those factors. All eyes will be on him again, especially down the home stretch of the season and into the playoffs. Will he be in danger of being let go if he can't help the team to another Cup run, or will his extension and hiring to coach the U.S. Olympic team keep him safe again?
Marc-Andre Fleury is in the last two years of his contract and has been largely successful from October to April. He has won 30 games in four of the last five seasons, and last season, he was fourth in the NHL with 24 wins in 33 games.
However, at times—and especially in the postseason—Fleury has been off his game. He tends to let in goals at the least opportune times and is often caught out of position.
Last year's playoffs were hard for him, as he lost his starting position in the first round to backup Tomas Vokoun. Prior to being switched out in the Islanders series, he was 2-2 with a .883 save percentage and 3.52 GAA. He did not play at all against the Ottawa Senators, and only played in Game 2 against the Bruins before again being pulled after giving up three goals.
Fleury will be under the microscope even more this year now that Vokoun is out indefinitely after having a blood clot removed. His backup for the time being is Jeff Zatkoff, who looked solid with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL in 2012-13, but has never played in the NHL. Although Dan Bylsma is confident that Zatkoff can pick up some of the workload, he may still be hesitant to go with the 26-year-old in divisional contests.
If Fleury can still help Pittsburgh win games despite a heavier workload, he could redeem himself in the eyes of fans, and perhaps the coaching staff who lost trust in him during the playoffs. He will have to earn it, though, or he could be one step closer to finding a new team when his contract is up in 2015.
On March 1, 2014, the Penguins will meet the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field for one of the games in this year's NHL Stadium Series. It will mark the third time the Penguins have played outdoors since the Winter Classic was established in 2008.
This is also Chicago's second time hosting the event, as the Hawks played the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in 2009.
The Penguins and Hawks often meet in the preseason, but have not played each other in the regular season since December 20, 2011. The Pens won the game by a score of 3-2.
This outdoor game will feature some of the best matchups in hockey between young captains Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, as well as skilled forwards Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane. Furthermore, it could be an entertaining goalie matchup if Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury are in top form.
It will also give the fans a chance to see what a Stanley Cup Finals series could have been like between these teams if the Pens had gotten past the Bruins last season.
As CapGeek notes, the Penguins are over the salary cap by $1.1 million heading into the season, so it seems some players could be on the move. Although several are locked into long-term contracts, 11 of them will become free agents at the season's end (eight unrestricted, three restricted).
Since it's still early in the season, there have not been any concrete names floated around in trade rumors, but Penguins players are well-aware that someone could be on the way out.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen has been a part of trade speculation, and he told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
I know the situation we're in being over the cap. It's pretty evident that Ray [Shero, the general manager] has to make a decision. Someone who probably otherwise is a regular on our roster [will be traded].
However, as Molinari wrote in another article, the Pens may not have to move anyone at all:
It turns out that a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that took effect in January -- a provision the Penguins did not favor when it was being negotiated -- could spare them the need to part with a player they would like to keep.
The CBA allows teams to deduct up to $925,000 of the salary of a player with a one-way contract -- which means he is paid the same amount whether he is in the NHL or the minors -- from the club's cap hit if he is assigned to the American Hockey League...
It's definitely different under this system, where you have that latitude, Shero said.
Despite some disappointments last season, Shero seems satisfied with his roster as is and may want to avoid making a trade. But at the same time, he could end up wanting to lock up more players after the 2013-14 campaign or get rid of a contract he regrets handing out. Or he could feel a player such as Niskanen is replaceable and look to move him to a team where that player could have a fresh start.
Penguins fans should keep an eye on potential comings and goings as the March 5 trade deadline gets closer.