The Pittsburgh Penguins are perennial contenders in the NHL, and namely it's because of their two superstars.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin produce at other-worldly levels, and even when one of them has an off-year (Like Malkin last year) the Penguins still find a way to compete.
This year will be especially challenging though.
Pittsburgh is in tough, thanks to a depleted forward ranks. They spent a lot of money to shore up their defense this offseason, and have rounded up a solid, if unspectacular group of blueliners.
Up front, the top six is light, and the injury to Jordan Staal doesn't help. The November return of Staal means that experimenting with any combination of two of the big three on the same line will have to wait.
It will be an interesting first two months of the season to say the least for Pittsburgh.
1) Crosby falls back to 35 goals
He'll easily top 100 points still (in fact, he'll easily top 110), but Crosby translates into a bit more of a play-maker. He's got 60 assists or more in three of his five NHL seasons, and last year he was just two away from that mark with 58. Look for 65 to 70 helpers out of Crosby.
2) Malkin bounces back with 95 points
A 20-point improvement is an outstanding season-to-season accomplishment for any player, but like Crosby, it may be an understatement for Malkin. After an off-year though, he gets back to right where he was before.
3) Mike Comrie becomes the third-leading scorer on the team
Last year that took a whole 50 points to accomplish (by Sergei Gonchar) but with a rejuvenated Malkin and Crosby's normal pace, along with Comrie's own offensive talent, a 60-point season is a real possibility.
4) Chris Kunitz is the only other Penguin to cross 50 points
If Staal was healthy this would be different, but you take the hand you're dealt. In actuality, Kunitz's production has been pretty consistent over his NHL career, having his streak of 50-point seasons stopped at three last year. If he's healthy he'll get plenty of chances offensively, but there's no one left that will come close to 50 on this roster, which isn't a big surprise.
5) Pittsburgh's power play falls to the 16 percent range
Thanks to the losses, this one isn't hard to fathom, especially when they only clicked at 17 percent last year. Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang take over power play responsibility, with Ben Lovejoy carrying an offensive game too. Filling Gonchar's absence from the back end is going to take some work though, and with no Staal for the time being, how effective can the second unit be?
6) Pittsburgh allows its second fewest goals since the lockout
In 2007-08 they allowed 212 against. Last year they allowed 235 against. In adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, the Pens have made sure that each pairing they roll out can have strong defensive presences (in addition to incumbent Brooks Orpik). They also have the luxury of rolling the three pairings equally if need be, so as to conserve their efforts if they need that final push to hold a one-goal lead late.
7) Pittsburgh's penalty-kill moves into the top five
The additions help, but also consider that this team has been in the top 10 in penalty-kill efficiency for the past two years. Dan Bylsma's system works, and everything pieces together to make it a top-five unit this year.
8) Alex Goligoski is the only Pittsburgh defenseman with 35-plus points
That doesn't mean that Kris Letang won't produce, but he'll probably be relied on more for his shot (he scored 10 goals two years ago) than setting up the play. Goligoski, despite the qualms of some, developed his puck-moving game behind Gonchar last year, and should be ready for 40-plus after a 37-point season.
9) Max Talbot scores 35 points
That's a big jump for Talbot (nearly 10 points off of his career-high of 36) but he's in the best position to eclipse that this year. In fact, he probably could have done it last year, but he missed the first quarter of the season thanks to offseason shoulder surgery and spent the rest of the year recovering. If you look at his playoff numbers over the past two seasons though (10 goals, nine assists in 37 games), then he's just ahead of that pace.
10) Marc-Andre Fleury wins 40
He's only done it once in his career, and even then Pittsburgh didn't win the division (in 2006-07 they finished second to New Jersey by two points). That still doesn't make them a lock to do it this year, but Fleury will have a good chance at 40 even if Pittsburgh doesn't score at the pace they're used to.
The Stretch (Remember...you're supposed to laugh): Brooks Orpik is converted to a power-forward (Think Dustin Byfuglien) and leads the team in scoring. Crosby and Malkin are shocked and convert themselves to defensemen thinking it works both ways. It doesn't.
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