Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in the playoffs, but he'll be key to the 2013 season for Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are aiming to take command of the new Metropolitan Division, and if players like James Neal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby can step up, they’ll have little trouble doing so.
The Penguins suffered an embarrassing end to their season last year when the Boston Bruins swept them out of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now, they’ll be competing against some familiar foes and some new ones to come out on top in the new division.
But if the team’s top offensive stars and the blue-line defensemen can come together, the Penguins should have no trouble triumphing.
Brandon Sutter keys Pittsburgh's third line.
They may go unnoticed at times, but centers Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale are huge parts of helping the offense thrive.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin get all the attention as the offensive stars at the position, but Sutter and Vitale are essential for the way they anchor the third and fourth lines.
Sutter’s been as good as advertised after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.
He scored 11 goals and tallied eight assists in the shortened season, and he’s a key part of the second power-play unit.
Similarly, Vitale keys the fourth line.
He only had five points last year, but his 26 shots on goal prove he’s an offensive agitator.
If both of these centers can keep their respective lines humming, it will take a huge amount of stress off the top two lines and will make the offense truly explosive.
Pittsburgh will sorely miss Tomas Vokoun while he recovers from blood clots.
Backup goalies are hardly the most exciting players on any hockey team, but they’re still vital to a squad’s success.
Tomas Vokoun took on a particularly large role in the playoffs last season, as he took over for the struggling Marc-Andre Fleury.
Vokoun was brilliant, allowing just 2.01 goals per game and recording a .933 save percentage.
He buoyed the team in the regular season too, starting 17 games and earning 13 wins.
But now he’s out for three to six months with blood clots, leaving the backup goalie spot in Jeff Zatkoff’s hands.
Prior to Vokoun’s injury, coaches expected Zatkoff to spend the season in the minor leagues, but now he’ll have to spell Fleury until Vokoun returns.
The combination of Vokoun’s health and Zatkoff’s performance in his absence will play a huge role in the team’s longevity.
Pascal Dupuis a key two way player for the Penguins.
Many feel that bringing back Pascal Dupuis was Pittsburgh’s best offseason move, and it’s hard to disagree.
Dupuis has morphed into the team’s best two-way player.
He’s excellent on offense, scoring 20 goals a season ago. He is slated to play on the first line this year, but is equally physical in the checking game.
He is 34 years old, so there’s some concern about how he can hold up with age.
However, he’s already averaging close to 19 minutes of ice time in the young season, showing no sign of slowing down, which should keep the offense explosive.
There’s no other offseason move that might be more important.
Rob Scuderi's return to Pittsburgh will boost the defense in a big way.
After spending the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, defenseman Rob Scuderi is back with the Penguins.
He was a crucial part of the blue line in the team’s 2009 Stanley Cup win, and he should be able to boost this year’s line in a big way as well.
He’s on the team’s second pairing of defenders, so he’ll play a big role right away.
He had a sneakily good year for the Kings last year, piling up 12 points in the shortened schedule, and he could be a big boost defensively for the team as well.
With some defenders struggling with injury, and the regression of prospects like Simon Despres, Scuderi will provide a much needed veteran presence.
Evgeni Malkin's consistency is a huge asset for the Penguins.
It might seem odd to see a dominant offensive player like Evgeni "Geno" Malkin relatively low on this list.
But Malkin’s best characteristic is his remarkable consistency, which makes him a known quantity for the Penguins.
In his seven seasons in the league, he’s only totaled less than 70 points twice.
The first time was during last year’s lockout shortened campaign, when he dealt with injuries and still tallied 33 points. The second was in 2010 when he only played 43 games.
Coach Dan Bylsma can pretty much pencil him in as an offensive juggernaut, and while there’s always some concern about him staying healthy, Geno will be a force when he’s on the ice.
Instead of worrying over Malkin, the team should be concerned with some stars on the blue line.
Kris Letang's health is a big question mark for the Penguins.
Kris Letang can be great at times, but he’s also one of the team’s more infuriating players.
His abilities on offense, and especially on the power play, are without question.
He’s scored nine goals and added 43 assists on the power play over the last three seasons alone.
But he’s prone to some serious lapses on defense at times, and his health has been a real issue over the last three years.
He played just 35 games a year ago and only 51 the season before that.
Now, he’s experiencing knee issues once again, and although he’s reportedly close to returning, his health could be an issue all year.
If Letang can stay healthy and focused, the Penguins defense will be serviceable enough to hold up over the course of the year.
If he can’t, the blue line will continue to struggle, particularly come playoff time.
However, it’s the player who will lead the unit in his absence that may be even more significant.
Brooks Orpik has been a key part of the Penguins for a decade now, but at age 33, he might be slipping a little.
He was able to score eight points last season, but he didn’t look like the same player defensively.
Teams were able to get into his head with some physical play at times, such as the Milan Lucic hit in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
This year, he’ll be counted on to carry the unit while Letang recovers, and it might prove to be a tall order.
If he can submit a vintage performance, then it’ll really boost the defense through the long regular season.
James Neal will need to produce consistently to support the offense.
James Neal is another Penguin who can elate or disappoint fans at any given time.
He’s totaled 62 goals in his three seasons in Pittsburgh, but he has a tendency to disappear for long stretches.
He played reasonably well in the playoffs this year, tallying a hat trick as part of his 10 points, but his previous two postseason stretches were ugly.
Neal only mustered two points in 2010 and six in 2011, which has earned him a lot of ire.
It might seem unfair given his regular season production, but given the enormity of the six-year contract he signed last year, it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency.
He’s dealing with an upper body injury to start the season, but if he can finally put together a stable season, he can vault the offense to new heights.
However, his offensive importance pales in comparison to the game’s biggest star.
If Sidney Crosby can stay healthy, Pittsburgh can be dominant.
There’s no way around it: When he’s on the ice, Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, that key phrase “when he’s on the ice” has been quite the qualifier recently.
He’s only played 99 games in the last three seasons combined, largely thanks to concussion issues and the broken jaw he suffered last year.
But when he does play, he raises the game of everyone on the ice with him.
For the Penguins to go from good to truly great, they’ll need Crosby’s remarkable talents.
Yet, despite his monumental importance, he’s still not the player the team is counting on the most.
Malkin has proved he can carry the offense in Crosby’s absence.
Instead, it’s the goalie that will determine the team’s fortune this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury's recovery from last year's playoff disaster will be the biggest story to watch this season.
For some reason, Marc-Andre Fleury is allergic to the playoffs.
After turning out dominant playoff performances in the team’s trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in both 2008 and 2009, Fleury has fallen off a cliff in recent years when the postseason rolls around.
In the last two regular seasons, Fleury’s had goals per game averages of 2.36 and 2.39 respectively.
When he entered the playoffs after both those seasons the averaged jumped up to 4.63 and 3.51.
Vokoun completely took over for Fleury early in last year’s playoff run, which had to come as a blow to the veteran’s confidence.
Now, without an experienced backup to lean on, the team is counting on him to come back and better than ever this season.
He’s played well in the team’s first two games, tallying a shutout in one and allowing just one score in the other, but it remains to be seen how he’ll hold up over the course of the season.
If he can dominate this season, then this squad will have no trouble winning the division.
If he struggles, then things will get much tougher and fans will be forced to count the days until Vokoun’s return.
For that reason, all eyes will be on Fleury in 2013.