Coming into the offseason, the biggest problem the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to address was the obvious deficiency on defense.
How would they replace Sergei Gonchar?
How would they improve the overall poor showing that came behind the blue line?
Despite the disappointing loss in the semi-finals against the Montreal Canadiens, many expected the Pens to have a relatively quiet offseason in order to get the team back on track.
However, as always the case with GM Ray Shero, we must expect the unexpected. In the first day of free agency alone, Shero made two tremendous signings that answered to many problems on defense.
As we creep closer to opening night on Oct. 7, it has become more than evident that Shero, once again, turned a limping Penguins squad into a very serious Cup contender. The amount of fight coming from both offense and defense has been something to behold this entire preseason.
Looking at the defense, the Pens have drastically upgraded the amount of talent with signings and call ups to mix with the talent that was already so prominent on the line. In goal, this will be a season of vengeance for Marc-Andre Fleury, a player who felt the the heat from fans and analysts more than almost any other member on the team.
Here's an in-depth look at the players who will take their places behind the blue line for the 2010-2011 season.
Laura Falcon is a student, intern for Bleacher Report and Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter.
Having lost his rookie status in 2008-2009, Goligoski has completed only one full season in the NHL.
People seem to have forgotten that fact.
He joined the big club at the start of the 2008-2009 season after Gonchar suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason. He had a good run with the team before he was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton upon Gonchar's return.
Expectations were high for Goligoski when he was asked to join the team full time after the losses of Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi and Philippe Boucher left gaps on the roster.
He started strong in the season, but seemed to lose his stride upon hitting midseason, the time when injuries strike the hardest. His skill dropped along with his confidence and the fans' faith in his abilities started to waver.
Goligoski finished the season on an average note. It is expected, for him as well as the rest of the team, that the long offseason gave him a chance to heal any nagging injuries that could have been quietly affecting his game. As always, his learning process on the defensive side of his defensive position needs more polishing, but that comes with experience.
He has been dubbed the next Gonchar since day one and his development has gone to reaching that goal. The fact that Shero was able to let go on Gonchar so easily during free agency shows just how much faith he and the rest of the organization has in Goligoski and his duties as a defenseman coming into this season.
Goligoski is expected to quarterback the power play, possibly share the duties with newly signed defenseman Paul Martin. However, in due time, Goligoski will have to take the reins.
From what he has shown us in his hockey career so far, he is more than capable of doing this.
Kris Letang was a second-round pick entering the NHL with incredibly high expectations that included comparisons to a Paul Coffey-like style.
While he didn't make the Pens following his draft year, he went back to the QMJHL where he later captained Team Canada to a gold medal in the 2007 World Juniors. Letang eventually worked his way up to WB/S and not long after, the NHL where his smooth skating and crisp shot made loud enough statements to keep him with the big club.
Letang is definitely a quiet one on the team, but he has slowly become acclimated to his position to the point where his leadership doesn't come from an outspoken attitude, but rather, a coolness that exudes through his style of play that he continues to perfect.
I already mentioned his smooth skating, an aspect of his game that is easily his biggest strength, but his physicality has made huge progressions as of late. The two fights he took part in the most recent Chicago Blackhawks game are all the proof necessary.
It's as if he took a page out of Brooks Orpik's Free Candy book and paired it with Deryk Engelland's fist to create a fiesty fighter.
Letang, like Goligoski, had a less-than-stellar previous season that was riddled with injury. On top of the injury problems, he found it increasingly difficult to put any of his shots on net, a disturbing occurrence when you're an offensive defenseman.
Losing Gonchar may have affected Goligoski the most, but it definitely calls for Letang to mature just as much as Goligoski. Despite recent veteran acquisitions on the blue line, these two are the future top defensive pair and it is absolutely necessary that they up their game now in order to answer the call whenever necessary.
Paul Martin broke his arm on Oct. 27 of last season during a game against the Pens, taking him out of the line up until he scored on his return game on Mar. 7 against the Pens.
Perhaps, but when Martin accepted a discounted five-year, $25 million deal from Shero over the summer, it wasn't because of the fond memories he's had in Pittsburgh.
This is a hockey player who genuinely wanted to play with a team he felt had the best chance to win the Stanley Cup. That kind of desire to win, the one that takes precedence over everything else, is very attractive not only to an organization, but a fan base as well.
Looking at Martin's performance in the preseason thus far, it doesn't look like it will take much effort on his side to become a quick fan favorite. He's a defenseman notorious for his lack of mistakes in his own end, coming from the amount of confidence that slaps you across the face when you see him carry the puck down the ice. I can't help but feel at ease when I see him do this.
Martin doesn't make his mark by putting points on the jumbotron. He does so just about every other way possible. His invitation to join the 2010 USA Men's Olympic Hockey Team in Vancouver is not something to be overlooked in that regard. Unfortunately, Martin's injury forced him to turn down the offer.
With how many minutes Martin will log per game, he should do a good job bringing back some of the veteran leadership and cool demeanor lost when Gonchar left the team, something that should help Goligoski and Letang as they further their skills in their positions.
Should he remain healthy, a lot of responsibility will be placed on Martin's shoulders, but that isn't something new to him.
For many players, money is what brings them to a team. For others, it's the chance at raising the Stanley Cup.
For Zbynek Michalek, it was the former mixed with the stability that comes from playing in Pittsburgh.
Shortly after signing a five-year, $4 million deal, Michalek spoke to the media that the unstable nature of the Phoenix Coyotes' future was a large reason why he wanted to leave the organization. Still relatively fresh off of a Cup win and with a new arena awaiting, Pittsburgh was the place to be for Michalek.
And this organization couldn't have been happier to take in a player who plays like Rob Scuderi 2.0.
Like Martin, Michalek doesn't make his statements on the scoreboard. The only tallies this player will make is in the blocked shots department.
In three preseason games, he totaled 14 blocked shots. Let me emphasize that it was a preseason game.
Anyone with that kind of dedication is worth the time, and Michalek certainly eats up a lot of ice time. The only concern is with his health. Surely blocking that many shots will take a toll at some point.
Michalek is also considered a top-notch penalty killer, tapping into his skill of blocking shots as well as strong puck-handling in his zone. He's a solid defensive defenseman who does his job very well.
On a team that was overflowing with offensive defensemen, this was a breath of fresh air. We all know the Pens can score goals, their problem was stopping them.
With Michalek on the roster, that will no longer be as serious a problem as it once was.
The loss of Gonchar left an Alternate Captain position up for grabs. The Pens seemed to have passed it on to Orpik and the decision was spot on.
Out of the entire team, he has been sporting the black and gold longer than any other player on the team and has not only emerged as a physical leader on the ice but a vocal leader in the dressing room as well.
In part, this has to do with how much turmoil Orpik saw during his 10 years in the organization. He spent his first two seasons in WB/S before graduating to the NHL, but he entered the League when times were rough in the Steel City.
Ticket sales were hitting extreme lows, the team was performing poorly individually and as a unit and no one wanted to come play for Pittsburgh because of it.
To Orpik, it never mattered how the team fared; he always stuck to his style of hockey. This is a style of play that is about as familiar to the fans as Sidney Crosby's: physical, physical, physical.
Pens fans can still remember the four hits Orpik delivered to the Detroit Red Wings in 14 seconds during the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. Because of Pittsburgh's appreciation for the physical aspect of the game, the moment solidified Orpik's status as a fan favorite.
When Orpik was asked to join Team USA in the 2010 Olympics, a vast number of Pens fans placed orders for Team USA #44 jerseys.
Orpik is an irreplaceable part of this team because of what he brings not only from his experience playing, but his experience playing with the Pens.
I've covered players who are certain to make the roster on opening night, however, there's still one position remaining.
Among these three players, I think Ben Lovejoy will be the one to stick around in the end, although Deryk Engelland makes a serious case for himself as well. The decision could easily go either way.
Lovejoy has received many nods in the NHL as a top defenseman. During his short stints in Pittsburgh, he showed us why he deserved a spot on the defensive core with a few game-changing plays that were surrounded by aggressive defense.
Speaking of aggressive defense, Engelland has certainly been able to show up Orpik in terms of a physicality battle. Engelland has no qualms with dropping the gloves at any point in time, and he can certainly hold his own when he does so.
Any kind of physical presence on defense is a good thing because it gets opposing forward thinking a little more than they should be when entering the offensive zone. However, should the Pens pass up the handsier skill in Lovejoy for the brute strength of Engelland?
Looking at the last player, as much as I love Simon Despres, he needs at least another year to develop before we should consider keeping him at the NHL level. With that said, rumors are floating around the Despres may stay for the nine NHL games he could play without this season counting against his arbitration eligibility.
I say go for it. He deserves his moment in the NHL after the work he has put in to improving his game, gaining weight and decreasing his body fat percentage. His return to the QMJHL, though, is all but imminent because of his age.
Despres will be a top defenseman in the QMJHL where he will fight for a spot on Team Canada's Junior Team, putting him in a similar situation as Letang. Their skill sets are also similar in that Despres flies when he's on the ice and can move the puck very well for a player of such a young age.
While keeping Despres is a very tempting thought, the coaching staff and fans can only imagine how much more he can improve after another year of honing his skills and gaining more experience.
Regardless of the final result, finding who will remain on the team will be a tough decision for the staff, though this is a position many NHL teams would want to be in.
In the 2009 Playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury played with an acid in his system that I had never seen before. His diving save in the waning seconds of Game Seven to clinch the Stanley Cup is one that will be remembered forever as one of the greatest moments in Penguins history.
Unfortunately for Fleury, his performance in the following season didn't quite match up. It was average at best, certainly not what we were used to seeing in the previous season.
In part, that had to do with an injury to his finger that never seemed to heal.
As last year's playoffs progressed, it was clear that Fleury just didn't have the spark the team would need to win. Sure enough, the Pens were sent home packing before they could try for their third consecutive Prince of Wales title.
Fleury certainly has a good opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong and thus far in the preseason, he has done just that. In two games, he has allowed two goals in roughly 40 shots.
Fleury seemed agitated with his performance last year as a whole, so I don't anticipate many problems between pipes. Fleury has the personality to let the bad bounces bounce away and keep that toothy smile on his face that fans love so much.
Coming back from a season where everyone was numb from the Cup, expect Fleury to come back this season with something to prove because that's exactly what he's feeling.
Out of all the player behind the blue line, Brent Johnson is the player with the least pressure of improving his game to make up for deficiencies for the previous season.
He was stellar all of last season when he needed to be. This is all that can be asked of a black up net minder.
Johnson didn't allow a single puck to go by him in either of the two shootouts he played in. Overall, his record for the season was 10-6-1.
This is pretty admirable for a back up.
Johnson doesn't seem to have missed a beat over the summer. His two performances in games this preseason have shown that he's ready for the season to begin.
In fact, I wish that Bylsma would give Johnson the nod more often, giving Fleury more rests so he can stay fresh as the season trudges on and the wears and tears on the body begin to have more an affect on the game.
Johnson has more often than not demonstrated that he can handle a few more starts for the sake of saving Fleury's energy.
We can't ask more from Johnson as our back up net minder and I'm just glad that he's on our side.