As the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the second half of the season atop the Metropolitan Division and headed toward a top seed in the postseason, few could have imagined that they would be in this position just a few months ago.
Having lost Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Matt Cooke in free agency, Tomas Vokoun to an injury and Tyler Kennedy in a trade, many expected that the Pens would take a step back this season, but those predictions turned out to be off the mark.
With that in mind, let's take a look at five bold predictions for the Pens in the second half of the season and see if the rest of the season will be as unpredictable as the first half proved to be.
Beau Bennett Will Be a Fixture on the First Line
After the Penguins were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, head coach Dan Bylsma raised some eyebrows when he predicted that Beau Bennett would be a top-six forward in the 2013-14 season.
Although Bennett has the necessary skills to play on the top-two lines, he hasn't lived up to expectations, but with Pascal Dupuis out for the season with a knee injury, he will get his opportunity once he himself returns from the injured reserve list.
In just 12 games this season, Bennett has tallied only one goal and two assists while playing primarily alongside Evgeni Malkin while James Neal was out with an injury.
While Bennett never clicked with Malkin, he has shown good chemistry with Sidney Crosby, but his opportunities have been limited since Bylsma has always been reluctant to take either Chris Kunitz or Dupuis off the top line.
However, Dupuis' injury has opened up a spot on the top line, and barring another blockbuster trade by general manager Ray Shero, Bennett will get a long look on the top line and will finally show that he belongs there.
Marc-Andre Fleury Will Be Rested Down the Stretch
After his postseason struggles resulted in his benching midway through the first round, many fans and commentators wondered if they'd seen the last of Marc-Andre Fleury in a Penguins uniform.
Halfway through the 2013-14 season, Pens fans should be worrying that they are seeing too much of him as he is currently on pace to appear in 66 games, which is one shy of his career high. That doesn't bode well for the Pens.
After appearing in just 62 regular-season games in the 2008-09 season, Fleury went on to lead the Pens to the Stanley Cup but struggled in the playoffs the next three seasons after appearing in 67, 65 and 67 games, respectively.
With trusted backup Tomas Vokoun unlikely to return this season and with current backup Jeff Zatkoff apparently still a question mark in the eyes of the coaching staff, the temptation will be to ride Fleury down the stretch. That would be a huge mistake.
While it's possible that the two-week Olympic break may offer Fleury a much-needed rest, the Pens need to take advantage of their double-digit point lead in the Metropolitan Division and let Zatkoff carry more of the burden, and I expect them to do so.
Penguins Will Trade a Defenseman
While the Penguins' blue-line unit has had to weather a storm of injuries this season, the silver lining has been the strong performance of top defensive prospects Philip Samuelsson and Brian Dumoulin and the re-emergence of Simon Despres, who have all performed well when called upon.
With all of this talent waiting in the wings and with Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland each in the final year of their contracts, a revamping of the Pens blue line seems inevitable.
Given this wealth of defensive talent as well as Pittsburgh's need for size and scoring depth on the offensive side, Pens GM Ray Shero, never one to be passive, will most likely deal a defenseman in exchange for a gritty forward who can contribute offensively.
As to which defenseman is the most likely to be traded, Robert Bortuzzo seems to be the top candidate due to his cap-friendly contract as well as his tendency to fall out of favor with the Pens coaching staff and spend weeks at a time as a healthy scratch.
GM Ray Shero Will Roll the Dice with Jeff Zatkoff
When the Penguins announced just before the start of the 2013-14 season that Vokoun would be out indefinitely with a blood clot, most fans felt that the Pens' goal-tending situation would doom their chances, but those fears have proved to be unfounded.
While Fleury is on pace for career bests in goals-against average and shutouts, Zatkoff has also been a bright spot for the Pens and has a record of 7-2-1, a save percentage of .906 and a goals-against average of 2.67.
However, despite his solid performance thus far this season, the question remains as to whether the Pens feel confident enough to go into the playoffs without a veteran backup.
While there are some interesting trade candidates out there such as J.S. Giguere, who is in the final year of his contract with the Colorado Avalanche and has an impressive postseason resume, the best option would be for the Pens to give Zatkoff more work in the second half of the season and see if he can continue his strong performance.
If he does, and I believe he will, the backup job will be his for the remainder of the season and the postseason as well.
Penguins Will Look to Add Grit
Whereas in recent seasons, when the Penguins could boast of having one of if not the best third line in the NHL with Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, this team's third line has struggled both defensively and offensively.
While Brandon Sutter has been steady, at times there has seemed to be a revolving door on either side of him as players have come and gone either due to injury, as with Jayson Megna and Chris Connor, or lack of production, as with Dustin Jeffrey and Matt D'Agostini.
If the Pens are to advance deep in the postseason, their third line must be able to relieve pressure from the top-six forwards. A trade seems the most likely way to address that need.
One intriguing option might be for the Pens to bring back Max Talbot, who left Pittsburgh in 2011 to sign a five-year, $8.75 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Although the Pens were not willing to match that offer at the time, Talbot's $1.75 million cap hit, when compared to Cooke's $2.5 million cap hit with the Minnesota Wild, seems like a bargain. His versatility and grit might be just what the Pens need to solidify their forward rotation.