As the Pittsburgh Penguins begin their 2013-14 regular season, they will do so both optimism and apprehension.
While Penguins GM Ray Shero has done an admirable job putting together a top-notch roster despite the challenges of free agency and a reduced salary cap, the Pens are not without their problems.
As the team gets ready to take the ice for the first time in the new season, let's look at the biggest potential problems for the Pens in 2013-14.
In previous years, the Penguins' third line-combination of Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy was one of if not the best third lines in the NHL.
Having traded Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL entry draft, Kennedy to the San Jose Sharks at the 2013 NHL entry draft and allowing Cooke to leave via free agency, the Pens have moved on.
With Brandon Sutter most likely centering Beau Bennett and Matt D’Agostini, the third line for the 2013-14 Pens will have a different look but will still be relied upon to contribute offensively to take some pressure off of the top six forwards.
If the third line struggles to generate a forecheck and scoring chances, the Pens will, as they were during the Eastern Conference Final, be relegated to a two-line team, which will allow teams to focus exclusively on stopping Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s lines.
As the Pens of last year and of the late '90s can attest, top-heavy teams don’t get too far in the playoffs no matter how talented the top two lines may be.
While every team worries about injuries to key players, no team has endured more long-term injuries to their core group in recent years than the Penguins.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pens have not enjoyed a single season in which either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin has not missed significant time due to injury.
Already the Pens have had injury issues as James Neal and Kris Letang are questionable for the opener.
In addition, goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who was going to be relied upon to stabilize the Pens' goaltending situation and replace Marc-Andre Fleury if he struggled yet again, is now out three to six months while undergoing treatment for a blood clot.
As a result, the Pens will begin the season thin in net and praying that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can shake the injury bug that has bitten each of them often over the past few years.
Last season, after Game 1 of the Penguins' quarterfinal playoff series against the New York Islanders, Marc-Andre Fleury had the look of a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender after shutting out the Islanders 5-0.
However, after being benched for allowing 14 goals in the next three games as the Islanders tied the series at two games each, Fleury had the shell-shocked look of a rookie wondering where it had gone so wrong.
While many expected and even wanted Pens GM Ray Shero to trade Fleury in the offseason and turn the staring goaltending duties to Tomas Vokoun, Shero decided to keep him as the starter, albeit with a much shorter leash.
With Vokoun now out for an expected three to six months due to a blood clot in his pelvis, all eyes will be on Fleury to see if he can regain his regular-season form and put his postseason troubles behind him.
If he can’t, don’t be surprised to see Ray Shero look to acquire a top-notch goaltender, perhaps by using highly touted and highly disappointing defenseman Simon Despres as trade bait.
As excited as Penguins fans were to see Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz re-sign and Rob Scuderi return after four years with the Los Angeles Kings, the financial reality is that those signings have put the franchise up against the salary cap.
With just $310,000 of cap space entering the regular season, barring a trade, the Pens will have little room to add a player should the need arise.
While they may be able to get some relief from Tomas Vokoun’s contract given his projected absence, the lack of cap space and the tendency of Ray Shero to add needed pieces at the trade deadline makes an almost certainty that any trade will not just cost draft picks.
That’s why Pens fans shouldn’t be surprised if at least one member of the team that takes the ice in the opening game will not be with the Pens at the close of the season.