The Biggest Concern for Each Pittsburgh Penguin Headed to Sochi

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIJanuary 25, 2014

The Biggest Concern for Each Pittsburgh Penguin Headed to Sochi

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Perhaps nothing causes the kind of internal conflict in the minds of NHL fans as the Olympic Games.

    Having cheered for players from various countries who all wore the same NHL sweater season after season, fans often find themselves rooting against the very same players because of national allegiances.

    As Pittsburgh Penguins fans and the rest of the NHL brace for the drama that Olympic hockey always seems to provide, let's take a look at the biggest concern for each Pittsburgh Penguin headed to Sochi.

Paul Martin's Concern: Getting Back in Game Shape

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    When it comes to the Olympics, if it weren't for bad luck, Paul Martin would have no luck at all.

    After missing the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver because of a broken arm he suffered while playing for the New Jersey Devils, Martin suffered a broken leg in a game against the Boston Bruins on November 25 that put his roster spot on this year's Team USA in jeopardy.

    Fortunately, this injury won't prevent him from representing the United States as the last one did.

    However, averaging less than 20 minutes per game since his return (after averaging around 25 minutes before his injury), there is still the question of how much ice time Martin can handle.

    When you factor in the bigger ice surface used in international play—as well as the assumption that Team USA's (and Penguins) head coach Dan Bylsma will lean a lot on Martin because of his skating ability and knowledge of the system—it will be interesting to see how much ice time Martin gets, especially early in the tournament.

Jussi Jokinen's Concern: Losing His Touch

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    Acquired at last season's trade deadline for just a seventh-round pick, Jussi Jokinen has proved to be worth his weight in gold to the Penguins since he arrived. His versatility and scoring touch are big reasons why the Pens have been able to weather the storm of injuries.

    Unfortunately, Jokinen's role on the Finnish Olympic team could have a detrimental effect on his production with the Pens.

    Projected to play more of a defensive role on the third or fourth line, Jokinen's offensive opportunities will be limited. Given his up-and-down production this season, it could impact his performance with the Pens, where he is counted on to be a steady offensive contributor.

    After tallying six goals in October, Jokinen's production dropped off significantly, as he totaled just three goals in November and December combined before rebounding with six goals already in January.

    Hopefully for Pens fans, Jokinen will continue to look to be a force offensively, even if he is relegated to a defensive role to avoid falling back into another prolonged goal-scoring drought when he returns to the Pens.

Sidney Crosby's Concern: Staying Healthy

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    Having scored the "Golden Goal" to lead Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2010, there's not much more Sidney Crosby can do to add to his international hockey resume.

    However, as a player who is seeking both his second Hart Trophy and Stanley Cup but who has missed 112 games since the 2010 Games, an injury at the Olympics would definitely impact his NHL resume.

    As the captain of Team Canada, Crosby will undoubtedly be focused on leading his countrymen to back-to-back gold-medal finishes for the first time since the USSR accomplished the feat in 1984 and 1988.

    Never one to shy away from contact or traffic, Crosby will undoubtedly be right in the thick of action during the tournament, but Pens fans will be holding their collective breath that Crosby returns to Pittsburgh unscathed.

Brooks Orpik's Concern: Losing His Physical Edge

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    Perhaps no Penguin selected for an Olympic team will have as much of a challenge going from the NHL to international hockey than Brooks Orpik.

    Playing in the NHL, Orpik is counted on to be a physical force who is able to take away both time and space from opposing forwards.

    However, playing in the Olympics on the larger international rinks against smaller and quicker opponents who play much more of a finesse game than the one he is accustomed to, Orpik is going to have to adapt.

    For Pens fans, that begs the question: When the Olympics are over, which Brooks Orpik will they see? Will it be the physical force we've seen so far this season, or the toned-down version from Sochi?

Chris Kunitz's Concern: Getting Acclimated to the Larger Ice Surface

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    It's been said that a person's greatest strength is often that person's greatest weakness. For Chris Kunitz, that certainly seems true with regard to how well he'll adapt to the international style of hockey.

    Having earned a reputation as a fearless net-front presence for the Pens since he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2009, Kunitz seems ideally suited for the smaller rinks and physical style of hockey found in the NHL.

    That is exactly why it will be interesting to see how he fares on the bigger international-size rinks in the more wide-open style of hockey that the Olympics offer.

    Although Kunitz does have international experience, having been a part of Canada's silver-medal winning team at the 2008 World Hockey Championships, he is the third-oldest member of Team Canada. It will be interesting to see how he adapts his game and if there is any carryover when he returns to the Pens.

Olli Maatta's Concern: Taking the Next Developmental Step

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    Without a doubt, one of the biggest stories for the Penguins during the 2013-14 season has been the emergence of Olli Maatta, who has become an exceptional two-way defenseman and figures to be a fixture in Pittsburgh for years to come.

    While his development to this point has been nothing short of remarkable, Maatta, playing behind All-Star teammates Kris Letang and Paul Martin, has not had an opportunity to be a top-four defenseman or a power-play quarterback.

    However, playing alongside 38-year-old Kimmo Timonen as well as the oft-injured Joni Pitkanen and the defensively challenged Sami Salo, he will get those chances as part of the Finnish team at Sochi.

    As arguably the most mobile defenseman on the roster, Maatta will be called upon to play a bigger role than the one he has with the Pens, and his ice time will be will be significantly larger than the 17:34 he has averaged with the Pens this season.

Evgeni Malkin's Concern: Finding His NHL Game

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    If history is any guide, Penguins fans should be very worried that Evgeni Malkin will be slow to acclimate himself to the NHL after the Olympics are over.

    After winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's postseason MVP and leading the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2009, Malkin was named to Team Russia for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

    Despite leading the Russian team in points with three goals and three assists in four games, Malkin struggled when he returned to the NHL and managed just five points in the entire month of March.

    In 2012, after the Pens were eliminated from the postseason, Malkin again returned to international hockey and took part in the IIHF World Championship where he was named MVP, led all players with 19 points and led Team Russia to a gold medal.

    After remaining in Russia to play in the KHL during the NHL lockout, Malkin would once again struggle in his return to the NHL and would total just nine goals in the 2013-14 season.

    Having scored five goals already in January, his biggest single output in any month this season, Malkin seems to be returning to his MVP form.

    Hopefully, unlike previous years, a return to international hockey won't slow him down.