As the preseason winds down and the regular is set to begin, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans are about to find out what kind of team they have this year.
Having gone through a significant overhaul since they left the ice in defeat in Boston following a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pens are a different team and will face new questions.
With the excitement of a new season ahead and with the disappointment of last year's playoff collapse hopefully behind them, let's look at the top five burning questions for the 2013-2104 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Having been relegated to the bench during the first round of the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury went from franchise goaltender to backup in just four games.
Although Pens GM Ray Shero elected not to trade Fleury, as many had expected and hoped, he has taken steps to protect against another goaltending meltdown in the future by signing NCAA star Eric Hartzell and drafting highly touted Tristan Jarry.
With two years left on his 7 year, $35 million contract, Fleury knows that the Pens can and will move on from him if he struggles yet again.
While he has been able to rebound from bad games in the past, a lot is riding on the question of whether he can do so again.
With the aid of a sports psychologist, and with Tomas Vokoun now out indefinitely while recovering from a blood clot, Fleury will have every opportunity to reclaim the job and prove to Ray Shero that he was right not to trade him.
The question is whether he will have the confidence and ability to do so this time.
With the logical two choices being Beau Bennett, a highly skilled yet inexperienced player, and Jussi Jokinen, a versatile if unspectacular player, Bylsma is again left with a decision to make.
Given his resistance to breaking up the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line and since playing Bennett on Malkin’s line would cause him to switch from his natural spot on the right side, the best option seems to be put Jokinen in the spot, at least for the start of the season.
History has shown that younger players tend to defer to superstars, which is why Bennett and the Pens would be best served with him on the third line where he can simply hone his skills and develop his game without feeling that he had to be a setup man for James Neal or Malkin.
With just a combined 32 regular and postseason games under his belt, Bennett would benefit from more game experience on the third line and would mesh well with Brandon Sutter to give the Pens some scoring depth, something they lacked at times last season.
Through the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, Kris Letang looked like a Norris Trophy winner.
Unfortunately, during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins, Letang looked more like an indecisive rookie who was struggling to make smart decisions.
In order for the Pens to take the next step and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, they will need Kris Letang to return to form and look to make the smart play instead of always looking to make the big play.
If Letang can eliminate the bad habits he showed against the Bruins, the Pens will be in prime position to chase the Stanley Cup.
If he can’t, the Pens will once again struggle in the postseason and that eight year, $58M contract will be a financial weight around the franchise’s neck.
After the Penguins blue line struggled against the bigger and more physical Boston Bruins in the ECF, it was clear that the team needed a rock-solid blue-line anchor who would be a steadying influence.
Fortunately for the Pens, one such player was available in Rob Scuderi, the former Pen who was dubbed “The Piece” for his timely heroics as a member of the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pens squad.
If Scuderi can be the steadying influence in 2013 that he was in 2009, it will give Dan Bylsma the freedom to turn his offensively minded defensemen loose to create scoring chances.
However, if Scuderi can’t be the linchpin that he was four years ago, the Pens will continue to struggle against defensive-minded teams and will most likely have another early exit from the playoffs.
With a career regular season coaching record of 201 wins, 93 losses, 25 overtime losses and a .630 winning percentage, Dan Bylsma has been one of the most successful coaches in the NHL since he took over the Penguins in 2009.
Yet for all of the regular season success his teams have had, Bylsma’s record is 36 wins and 29 losses and, since 2009, he is a sub-.500 playoff coach.
Obviously, the reason for this disparity between the regular season and the post season records are the postseason adjustments or lack thereof.
In the regular season, teams face different opponents from one game to the next and, while they may make small adjustments, teams won’t change their system.
In a best-of-seven playoff series, however, teams can rework their strategy to face one specific opponent as the Bruins did last year in the ECF when they went away from their aggressive fore-checking system and decided to clog the neutral zone.
Unfortunately, Dan Bylsma was either unwilling or unable to make adjustments and, as result, the Pens ended up with another disappointing post season finish.
If the Pens are to chase another Stanley Cup, they must be willing to adapt to their opponent instead of forcing the play as they did in their embarrassing four-game sweep against the Bruins.