Ranking the 5 Most Important Players on the Pittsburgh Penguins' Roster
Blessed with the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner, a former recipient of those awards and a roster loaded with talent, the Pittsburgh Penguins have several key players.
Perhaps more than any other NHL team, they rely on their stars to carry them.
However, the title of most important player on a team does not always go to the most skilled or accomplished player. It goes to the individual who, more than any other, must play well for his team to win.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the five most important players for the Penguins in the upcoming season.
The top selection might surprise you.
No. 5: Brandon Sutter
When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they did so on the strength of their vaunted "three-center model." Jordan Staal teamed with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke to form the best third line in the NHL.
While the Pens were forced to trade Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes just three years later, Brandon Sutter, whom the Pens acquired in the deal, has proven to be a good defensive center.
As he showed in the latest postseason (five goals, seven points in 13 games), he is more than capable of contributing offensively as well.
Having endured the Ryan Kesler-to-the-Pens trade rumors—such as this one from Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—and armed with a two-year extension, Sutter seems primed for a breakout year this season. With the Pens' much-improved bottom-six forwards, he also figures to get more help than he did last season.
Although he may always have to endure unfair comparisons to Staal, Sutter has proven that he has been and will continue to be an indispensable part of the Pens.
No. 4: Kris Letang
Despite his maddening inconsistency, Kris Letang remains one of the most dynamic defensemen in the NHL.
Although he struggled for most of the 2013-14 regular season with prolonged stretches of poor play and a stroke which sidelined him for more than two months, Letang improved throughout the postseason.
With the hiring of new head coach Mike Johnston and the installation of the Pens' new puck-possession scheme, Letang will be counted on to be the offensive catalyst he was in 2013, when he was nominated for the Norris Trophy.
With the emergence of Olli Maatta and the addition of Christian Ehrhoff, Letang won't have to bear as much of the burden at even strength. Coupled with the departure of Matt Niskanen, this will give him more time and opportunity on the power play, where he's excelled in previous years.
If the Pens are to repeat as Metropolitan Division champions and contend for the Stanley Cup, Letang must rebound from his struggles last season and once again be the point-per-game threat that he was in the 2013 season.
No. 3: Evgeni Malkin
While Evgeni Malkin hasn't been able to match his MVP performance from the 2011-12 season, he still remains one of the top players in the game and one of the most important players on the Penguins' roster.
Although he only tallied 23 goals last season, his career low over a full season, Malkin led the way in postseason scoring for the Pens with 14 points in 13 games. His hat trick in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue Jackets propelled the Pens to a series-clinching win.
While it may take some time for him to develop chemistry with his linemates, Malkin figures to benefit from playing alongside teammates who are willing to go to the net. He will once again be counted on to lead the Pens this season.
No. 2: Sidney Crosby
As the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner, Sidney Crosby would seem destined for the top spot on this list. However, being the best player doesn't necessarily make him the most important to the Pens.
To demonstrate that fact, one need look no further than the Pens' playoff run last season, during which he managed just one goal and was held scoreless for six of the team's 13 playoff games.
Despite Crosby's struggles, the Pens were able to survive a scare by the Columbus Blue Jackets and pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers to the brink of elimination before losing three straight contests.
While Crosby is far and away the best player in the NHL, the fact remains that—because of the contributions of former MVP Evgeni Malkin and others—the Pens have been able to win without their captain playing well or even playing at all.
That's why the top spot on this list goes to someone else.
No.1: Marc-Andre Fleury
While some might be surprised to see Marc-Andre Fleury ranked above Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on this list, it reflects the Penguins' recent history.
Over the past few seasons, the Pens have had success even when Crosby and Malkin were struggling or out with injuries. They haven't fared as well when Fleury was not on top of his game.
After suffering through four straight years of postseason struggles, Fleury registered even better stats last postseason than he did in the Pens' 2009 run to the Stanley Cup.
Even with Crosby and Malkin combining for just seven goals in 13 games, Fleury had the Pens one win away from the Eastern Conference Final.
Although the Pens did add highly touted backup Thomas Greiss to the mix, he has never played in more than 25 games in one season and has only seen one career postseason start in net (in 2010 with the San Jose Sharks).
While no one would argue that Fleury is a better player than either Crosby or Malkin, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Pens as a team have a successful season without him having one as well.
That is why Fleury will be the Pittsburgh Penguins' most important player for the 2014-15 season.