Pittsburgh Penguins: Top Questions That Will Be Answered in The Second Half
Technically the halfway point of the season is already over, as the Pittsburgh Penguins have already played 50 of their 82 games. Right now the Penguins sit in second place in their division and our in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Pens entered the All-Star break 31-15-4 record.
The Penguins came into the season with high expectations. They opened up their brand new arena and played and hosted the 2010 Winter Classic.
The Pens also have some players have some great and in some cases career years. For example Kris Letang, who right now would probably be a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which is given to the best defensmen in the league.
Along with Letang, Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is having a big season after a horrible start. Fleury is also projected as a finalist for the Vezina trophy, which is given to the top goaltender in the NHL.
Obviously Sidney Crosby is having a big year but has missed quite a few games to a concussion. Crosby was on pace to have a really ridiculous year statistically and was running away with the scoring title.
Another big story this year has been the inconsistent play of Evgeni Malkin. Like Crosby, Malkin has been injured as of late, and both he and Crosby missed the All-Star game.
The injury bug also stuck at the beginning of the year as Jordan Staal didn't play until the Winter Classic.
Now both Crosby and Malkin are set to come back very soon, and the Pens will could be at full-strength for the first time all year.
The Pens look like a lock to make the playoffs but there are still plenty of questions to be answered
Will Evgeni Malkin Return to His Superstar Form?
Since day one of his career Evgeni Malkin has been one of the best and most talented players in the NHL. He had 85 points in his first season, winning the Calder trophy for Rookie of the year. He followed that season by having 106 points and helping the Pens get the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Pens rewarded Geno with a new contract, five years, $8.7 million a year, which was very similar to Crosby's deal.
In 2007-2008, Crosby went down with an injury, causing him to miss 29 games, but Malkin stepped his game up and kept the Penguins afloat in the playoff picture. He also went on to win the Art Ross trophy, which is given to the leading scorer in the National Hockey League.
In 2008-2009 Malkin finished first in points with 113 and was also the runner-up to the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin for the Hart Trophy (League MVP).
Malkin continued his dominance in the playoffs that year, helping the Pens win their third Stanley Cup in the history of the franchise. Malkin finished as the top scorer in the playoffs and took home the Conn Smythe trophy, which is given to the playoff MVP.
After that season, a lot of people began to think that Malkin was the best player on his team, better then Crosby, and some suggested that he was the most complete player in the league. His popularity was at an all-time high, and his parents even became popular cult figures at the games. Despite his lack of English, Malkin was considered hilarious by most and was the toast of the town.
Then came last season. Malkin suffered his first real injury and missed 13 games. He had very disappointing year by his standards, finishing with 28 goals and 77 points.
Malkin also disappointed most in the playoffs last year, having 11 points in 13 games, as the Pens were eliminated in the second round.
So far this year Malkin has been inconsistent and injury prone. Malkin has missed eight game and has just 37 points and 42 games. For someone that gets paid 8.7 million a year, that's simply unacceptable.
Assuming Malkin will be on a line with Jordan Staal, and assuming he's healthy, there should be no reason for Malkin to continue to underachieve. Only time will tell.
How Much Better Can Kris Letang Get?
Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero is really good at getting quality players for good deals. Well I think it's safe to say that he got the Penguins another bargain when he signed defenseman Kris Letang to a new deal this past March. Letang was signed to a four-year contract extension that runs through the 2013-14 season with the Penguins worth an annual $3.5 million.
When Letang made his debut, many fans and critics were skeptical of his game. He took some big risks on the ice and often left his defense out to dry when he tried to join the rush. He was often criticized for being out of position and being careless with the puck.
My how things have changed. Letang is having a huge 2010-2011 season so far, as he's fourth in the NHL in terms of points by a defensman with 41points. Letang already has more goals than he did last season with seven, and is on pace to have 11 goals and 74 points this year.
Letang's offensive performance can't be underestimated considering that they cut ties with Sergei Gonchar, was a very good offensive defenseman for the Penguins the last three years. But Letang has replaced Gonchar as far as a strong offensive presence on the blue-line for the Pens.
The most impressive thing about Letang is the amount of confidence he seems to have on the ice. Now he seems to have an understanding of when it's ok to take certain risks on the ice in terms of joining the rush. He's become so comfortable on the ice that his playing time continues to increase. Letang is now averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game and is often on the ice when the opposing team has their top line on the ice.
Pens' fans aren't the only ones noticing Letang's play. ESPN currently has him as the top contender for the Norris Trophy, which is given to the NHL"s best defenseman at the end of the season. Letang was also the top vote getter for the 2010-2011 NHL All-Star game for defensemen, which is really impressive being that he wasn't even on the ballot, you literally had to write his name for to vote for him.
Letang also scored two goals in the All-Star game.
It's not all Letang though, the Pens defense as a core has been very impressive this year, especially during this ten game win streak. Brooks Orpik, Letangs partner on defense, should also be given some credit for Letang's breakout season. Orpik is a very tough, and smart defensmen, who often covers for Letang, allowing Letang to join the offensive rush.
At just the age of 23, it's Letang's play seems even more impressive. His potential seems sky high and Letang could very well develop into one of the best offensive defensemen of his era.
The question now is can Letang keep it up? Also, how much better can he get?
Will Marc-Andre Fleury Continue to Play at a High Level?
Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending has been by far the No. 1 topic for the team this year.
Fleury and the Penguins had a disappointing second-round elimination in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs via the Montreal Canadians. In that series, Fleury was not at his best to say the least. He allowed three or more goals in four of the seven games, including nine goals in the last two games.
Fleury had a miserable start to his season this year, going just 1-6 in his first seven starts. In those seven games, Fleury had a goals-against average of 3.54, which was good enough for second to last in the league.
His save percentage was even worse, dropping all the way down to 85 percent, which was 40th in the NHL.
During that span, Fleury was feeling the heat from coach Dan Bylsma, who pulled him from games on multiple occasions and even called him out during press conferences.I guess you could say that he was just giving Fleury some tough love, but I don't condone calling players out in the media.
Fleury was also feeling heat from his backup, Brent Johnson.
Johnson has had a great year for a backup goalie. Johnson is 8-4-2 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
After Johnson's hot start, and with Fleury's struggles, I heard a lot of people saying that Johnson is the man and that Fleury is overrated—both of which are ridiculous statements.
Yes, Fleury had a bad start, and yes, Johnson has had a good year, but Fleury is, was and always will be a better goalie than Johnson.
And that's no knock to Johnson. Having a backup goalie that you can count on is only a good thing. However, Johnson has looked more like, well, Brent Johnson as of late.
One thing that has happened is he seems to have gotten his confidence back. His teammates have had his back in the media and the fans have been way more supportive at home games.
outside top 102.9%
One thing you have to remember is all goalies go through slumps, even franchise goalies.
Since Fleury's bad start, he's been absolutely stellar in net for the Pens. His numbers are now good enough to garner him some attention as a nominee for the Vezina trophy. For the season Fleury is now 23-11-2, with a .925 save percentage, and a 2.19 GAA, all of which are good enough to be in the top five in the league.
Yes, Fleury has a good team in front of him but lately the Pens have been without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Yet the Pens and Fleury continue to win. Fleury has won his last five starts, and has been outright dominant. He shut out the New York Islanders with 29 saves, and had 37 and 46 saves in wins over the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
Fleury has had some inconsistencies in the past, but now looks like he's finally playing up to his capabilities on a nightly basis. If Fleury plays this well in the playoffs the Pens will be poised to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
The question now becomes can he keep it up? Can Fleury continue to play at a high-level? Can Fleury continue to silence the critics?
Will The Pens Focus On Defense Pay Off?
During the playoffs last year, the Pens had a defensive breakdown to say the least. They were often out of position and allowed many odd man rushes. Not only that but they' turned the puck over in their own zone way too often.
Despite the fact that the Pens have two of the highest paid players in the league on their team, the Pens had a decent amount of money available to spend on free-agents. Some suggested that they should have used it to sign wingers to play with Crosby and Malkin.
The Pens took a different route. The Pens massively solidified their defensive corps with a two-headed signing of the Devils’ Paul Martin for 5 years, $25 million, and Phoenix’s Zbynek Michalek, for 5 years, $20 million. The signings instantly fill the Pens’ most glaring, immediate need: Reliable defensive defensemen.
I don't think either player has been disappointing. Martin has played in all 50 games, has the second most average ice-time on the team, is a +8, and has 17 points. Martin is a responsible, veteran defenseman that has a lot of skill. He's a smart player and a great skater.
Michalek has missed nine games but still leads the team in blocked shots with 82. That's why he's a Penguin. Michalek is never going to have a lot of points but he'll give you good defense, lots of blocked shots, and most of all he'll play hard.
Along with Michalek and Martin, Pens veteran Brooks Orpik is also having a very good season. Orpik has 127 hits and 72 blocked shots, all while being a +13.
Only the Boston Bruins have allowed less goals than the Penguins, which shows you that the focus on defense is already paying off.
If the Pens want to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, then the defense continuing to play at a high-level will be a big reason why.
Will Ray Shero Make a Big Move?
Ray Shero has been absolutely terrific as the Penguins' general manager. He's made some great signings and some big trades.
No move was bigger than when he traded Colby Armstrong, Eric Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a 2008 first-round draft pick (Daultan Leveille) for Marian Hossa. The trade almost paid off as they lost to the Red Wings in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Hossa was a perfect fit for Sidney Crosby and played extremely well in the playoffs. That being said, Hossa was a rent-a-player and signed with the Detroit Red Wings in the following off-season.
The next year Shero was at it again on the trade deadline. Shero traded for then New York Islander, veteran winger Bill Guerin. This time the big trade did help the Penguins capture their franchise third Stanley Cup. Guerin scored a career-high 15 points in one playoff run during their 08-09 Cup year riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby. He also managed to score 21 goals and 45 points in 09-10.
Last year Shero bombed however, as he traded for forward Alex Ponikarovsky from the Toronto Maple Leafs. In exchange, the Pens gave up Martin Skoula and minor-league forward Luca Caputi.
Ponikarovsky was mediocre at best for the Pens and did not fit in well with the team.
I don't believe that Shero has to make a big move this year and I'm not sure if he's going to be able to. The Pens don't have a lot of cap room to work with. If the Pens can stay healthy, they are very much capable of winning a Stanley Cup with this roster.
Can The Pittsburgh Penguins Stay Healthy?
The Penguins have a team that should and will contend for a Stanley Cup this year, that much is a fact.That being said, it's hard to win a Stanley Cup when most of your best players are always injured.
The Penguins have recently been without their best player, and the best player in the NHL in Sidney Crosby. Crosby was running away with the scoring title, and had a 23 game point streak at one point. He suffered a concussion and has missed the last nine games.Reports are that Crosby has begun working out and should return very soon.
Evgeni Malkin has missed eight games this year, including the final three games before the NHL all-star break because of a left knee injury and sinus infection. Malkin has been practicing with the team and is mostly likely going to return this week.
Jordan Staal missed the first 39 games of the season because of an infection in his foot, which required surgery. Staal was set to play in December, but then broke his hand, delaying his return.
The Pens can not win a Stanley Cup without any of these three, any of their top four defensemen, or Marc-Andre Fleury. Injuries are apart of the game but you can't replace these guys, especially come playoff time.
You also can't predict injuries so as a fan all you can do is hope and pray that these guys that I mentioned will be healthy. If the Pens have their full roster for the playoffs, another Stanley Cup is a very good possibility.