In the hockey world, there is no greater honor than winning the Stanley Cup. I almost feel like the cliche' police should come and arrest me for saying it, but that just gives credence to the statement.
The season was over and Pens fans, like yours truly, had to twiddle their thumbs and wait patiently for the next season; for the Pens to defend their championship. With that season about to get underway, I'm going to take a look at five serious issues that face the reigning champs and threaten to spoil their upcoming title defense.
Issue No. 1: Secondary Scoring
It goes without saying that the Penguins are blessed with offense talent: Sidney Crosby (103 points) and Evgeni Malkin (113 points). The two-headed monster combined last season for 216 points in 159 games. That is offensive talent that any team would love to have.
The Pens rode on the backs of these two workhorses for most of the season. Each had their ups and downs, but overall, they were consistent and productive. Now here is where it gets interesting.
These two superstars did have a deep, talented pool of players supporting them, true, but their next highest point earner was trade deadline pick-up Chris Kunitz (53 points), followed by Jordan Staal (49 points) and their other big deadline player, veteran Bill Guerin (48 points).
Now, you could look at this and say: "That's solid scoring from your secondary players." True. But hear me out. Three of the players mentioned above, Crosby, Malkin and Staal are centers. This is great, but the Pens have experimented with Staal playing wing and it isn't his best fit. So that means you have an issue with scoring from wingers.
While Guerin is likely to have a good year, playing on Crosby's top line, I guess in the 40-50 point range again, he isn't getting any younger at 38. And Kunitz, well, he is good for 60+ plus this season, but he is streaky. He could go 10 games without a goal in all seriousness. Remember him in the playoffs? I sure don't.
To say the Penguins are stretched at the winger position, is an understatement. Kunitz and Guerin lead the bunch, but that's only your top line. You need more than three players to show up and preform consistently to have a successful title defense.
And of the Penguins' next highest point getters last season, Petr Sykora (46 points), Ruslan Fedotenko (39 points), and Miroslav Satan (36 points), only Fedotenko is still with the team.
The Pens re-upped him to a one year deal. This was a good move by GM Ray Shero, but he needed to do more. Sykora, while absolutely invisible in the playoffs, could have been retained cheaply and provided solid offense talent. It look's like he will sign with Minnesota. And Satan, well, he was just a big disappointment all around.
The Pens have players like Matt Cooke (31 points), Tyler Kennedy (35 points) and scrappy Max Talbot (22 points) who can all play wing, but Cooke and Kennedy need to step up and Talbot is out at least until November following surgery.
That means on a second line, playing with Malkin, will be Fedotenko and whomever else. Some Pens fans say Eric Tangradi will be ready to play, but I doubt it.
Granted, if Pens coach Danny Bylsma put you, me and Malkin on a line, Geno would make us look good, but the Art Ross Trophy winner needs more help than little, old Fedotenko. Which leads me into my next issue.
Issue No. 2: Offseason Signings
GM Ray Shero has done wonders at keeping the Penguins intact. He resigned Malkin, Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and D-man Brooks Orpik to multi-year deals last offseason. He also convinced players like Guerin and and Fedotenko to take significant pay cuts to stay with the team this year. With these positive things being said, here is my criticism: No big names free-agents.
Do you know who the Pens signed in the first few days of July? Tough guy Mike Rupp and Shot-Blocker Jay McKee. McKee was a good signing. He was cheap and will help take the spot left by Rob Scuderi, who left for LA and $13 million. But Rupp makes no sense. Last year, Rupp had 136 PIM, earned mostly from five-minute majors.
Which is great if you team doesn't already have a solid enforcer. But the Pens still have Eric Goddard, who earned himself 171 PIM last season. Why do you need to have two knuckleheads like this on the same team? Surely, you wouldn't play Rupp on a line with either Crosby or Malkin (unless you need some instant protection from new Flyer Chris Pronger)?
So do you play them both on your fourth line? No. Because the Penguins have grinders like Pascal Dupuis and Craig Adams, as well as a talented the farm system. So where does that leave these enforcers? I don't know and I don't think the coaches do either.
With the money wasted on Rupp, the Pens could have made a stronger push on a player like Sykora. Or even went after some of the skilled free agent wingers on the market that other GM's snagged up. Players like Vaclav Prospal (Rangers, $1.1 million) or Alex Tanguay (Lightning, $2.5 million).
The Pens could have shuffled cap room and picked up either of these players, both of which would have been a great fit on a line with Malkin. Much better than anyone the Pens can field with their current roster.
Issue No. 3: Can the D overcome their losses?
Penguins fans love Rob Scuderi and for good reason. During the Stanley Cup Finals, there was one instance when Fleury was caught out of place in net and "Scuds" stepped up and made two excellent, back to back blocks, saving the game.
Also, he is a home developed talent, drafted and raised by the Penguins. Scuds was an awesome, solid defenseman who is worth every penny LA is paying for him. The Penguins also lost the tree of a man, Hal Gill, who bolted town for Montreal and $2.5 million a year.
Overpaid? For sure. Gill was never really loved by the Pens faithful. He was often caught out of place and was notoriously slow in the skates. As a fellow, lumbering defenseman, I can sympathize though. Still, Gill and Scuds were a shutdown pair, who would stifle the efforts of any teams top players.
Want proof? Watch Scuderi dismantle Ovechkin in Round Two of the playoffs. Scuds was on Alex the Great like white on rice the entire series.
Now, as I mentioned before, the Pens brought in McKee from St. Louis and he should at least fill the hole left by Scuds on the ice, but not in Pens fans hearts.
As for a replacement for Gill, the Pens are banking on Alex Goligoski, who had a impressive rookie campaign, putting up 20 points in 45 games. So that gives the Pens McKee, Goligoski, Orpik, Kris Letang, Sergei Gonchar, and Mark Eaton as your top six D-men.
A solid roster, but I wonder if Goligoski can repeat his success. Or if Gonchar and Eaton, 35 and 32 respectively, can stay healthy? Both have had health and injuries issues over the past few seasons. Can Letang continue to improve as an offensive defenseman, or will he turn into the next Ryan Whitney? I sure hope not.
The Pens defense is stable, but it remains yet to be seen how much of an impact losing your best two defensive defense men will play on the Pens title defense.
Issue No. 4: Consistency
Which Pens team will show up when the season starts? Will it be the post-Michel Therrien Penguins who went from 10th in the East to winning the Cup? Or will it be the Pre-All Star Game Pens who sputtered and collapsed on themselves? The Penguins need to come out of the gate strong and pull ahead of a very improved Atlantic Division.
Philly traded for bruiser Pronger, who will have an immediate impact on Crosby and Malkin's offense in the Interstate Rivalry. The Rangers snatched up oft-injured Marion Gaborik, who if healthy, will be able to torch any goalie. The Islanders got their man in John Tavares. And the Devils have Marty Broduer, need I say more?
The Pens need to stay tough and consistent in their division if they want to successfully defend their Cup.
Another thing to consider. At one point last year, the Pens were so depleted with injuries and God knows what else, that five AHL players were starting regularly: Chris Minard, Paul Bissonnette, Tim Wallace, Bill Thomas, and Dustin Jeffrey. These players played a total of 81 combined games for the Pens last season.
Collectively, they scored 12 points. Now some may say that this was a problem last season. True. But I promise you this, there was will be injuries. And with players like Luca Caputi, Ben Lovejoy, and Tangradi in the system, the Pens should have confidence that they can fill those holes.
At the same time, they better hope that they don't have to depend on AHL players to jump into the fire, all at the same time, to try and save the season, like they had to last year.
Another issue is consistent goal tending. As anyone who knows me can attest, I have never been 100 percent confident with Marc-Andre Fleury. He is a stellar preform who makes unreal saves at times. At other times, he looks like a fish out of water. Now, every goalie lets the bad bounces in every now and then, I understand that.
But Fleury let's one in almost every game and usually in the first five minutes. It is like he needs to let a bad goal go in before he wakes up and turns on the skills. The Pens also lost backup Mathieu Garon in the offseason to Columbus.
They brought in veteran Brent Johnson from Washington, who won 12 games last year. The most important person on the team, the person who cannot afford to have a bad night, any night, is your goalie. I worry that Fleury will have too many bad nights.
If the Pens can become more consistent, from the beginning of the season, it would greatly ease the fears of at least one fan.
Issue No. 5: The Hangover
I had to bring it up. If you weren't tired of reading about it on TSN and NHL.com, maybe you will be after reading my article. Historically, teams who win the Cup suffer from a shorter summer and aren't given the chance to properly rest and recoup before going out and competing for another nine months.
The Penguins played well over 100 games last season. That does take a toll on players. But the Penguins are professionals. They have been beaten up and exhausted every season since they laced up, whether in Cole Habor, Nova Scotia or Magnitogorsk, Russia.
These guys have pushed their bodies before and with the added incentive of defending/repeating their titles, they will do it again. I'm not just saying this because I'm a Pens fan.
I'd say the same about Detroit, if they had won, or Toronto if they...wait, sorry I forgot who I was talking about there. Professional athletes are just that - professionals. So do you know what I think of the Stanley Cup hangover? Not much.
So with all that said, I think the Pens have many questions to answer this season. I hope, of course, they can repeat, but they have serious issues to deal with in the defense of Lord Stanley' Cup.
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