The Runner-Up: A Look at the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins

John Buco@john.bucoCorrespondent ISeptember 24, 2008

The Pittsburgh Penguins have come a long way since the 2001 season.  

After the final retirement of Mario Lemieux, the Pens were able to look forward into a new era.  Promising?  Not in the least. 

Hometown boy Ryan Malone was the brightest point on this Penguins squad for three years.  Guys by the name of Hlinka, Kehoe, and Olczyk took turns behind the bench, all leading to the same conclusion—the bottom is out of the tub.

During these years, the Penguins stockpiled draft picks and developed from within.

Then came the lockout.  An entire season passed without a single game of hockey played.  This was a sad time for the NHL in America, because it was just starting to become popular again, with American teams winning the Cup every year, the latest having been the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After the lockout, the Pens looked forward.  Was the future promising?  Absolutely.  The biggest acquisition post-lockout was Sergei Gonchar.  Not a star by any stretch—but a certain upgrade over the likes of Dick Tarnstrom. 

They had a guy sitting in the wings who was arguably the best young hockey talent in the world—Sidney Crosby.  They had the goalie of the future in Marc-Andre Fleury, and the best product from Russia since Sergei Fedorov in Evgeni Malkin.

Michel Therrien was the new guy behind the bench, and could not have stepped into a better situation outside of the city of Detroit. 

There was nowhere to go but up—but it was a long way up.  The initial strides were tough.  One more season in the gutter was highlighted by the scoring race between Crosby and rival Alexander Ovechkin of Washington.  Ovechkin won the battle, but both teams still finished poorly.

Enter into the past two years.  Long story short, because it is so recent, two playoff appearances, one Finals appearance, and the emergence of three faces of the franchise.

Now we come to 2008-09.  Would anything short of a Stanley Cup be a disappointment?

The answer is yes and no.

The Penguins are not the team they were a year ago.  Players like Ryan Malone, Ty Conklin, and Marian Hossa have departed for greener pastures.  (Two of them to Detroit's pasture.  Boo.) 

They have been replaced with some odds and ends.  Miroslav Satan is the top player coming into the team this year.  But as stated by many other writers, he is not Marian Hossa, and the fans of the Pens cannot expect him to be Marian Hossa.  He will pull his weight.  He just needs some time.

Ruslan Fedotenko was imported from the Islanders along with Satan.  He's not quite the prolific goal scorer, but the Pens have plenty of those, so he just needs to find a role and play into it.

Malkin and Crosby just need to do what they do, and the rest of the offense will fall into place.  A good year from Jordan Staal wouldn't hurt either.

The defense is more cause for concern, especially in the last couple days.  Ryan Whitney is already done for at least a good chunk of the season.  No one really knows when he'll be back.  The hopes are as early as Christmas. 

The big punch to the gut came after the last preseason game, where top defenseman and team leader Sergei Gonchar took a huge hit and spent the rest of the game in the locker room.  The diagnosis is a shoulder problem and the training staff is still uncertain of when he'll be able to return.

With the top two out, the brunt of the defensive load will fall on tough guy Brooks Orpik and fan favorite and female heart-throb Kris Letang.  Hall Gill will certainly play a role,u along with Rob Scuderi.  With Gonchar and Whitney out, the third defensive pairing is unknown at this point, although AHL superstar Alex Goligoski seems poised to move forward.

Aside from Crosby and Malkin, the other area of the Penguins team with the least cause for concern is between the pipes.  Marc-Andre Fleury obliterated all doubts of his abilities last season, especially in the playoffs.  He is now among guys named Luongo, Nabokov and—dare I say it—Brodeur as the elite netminders in the league. 

The scary part about Fleury is his fragility.  No one knows what will happen if he goes down—and I'm sorry, but Dany Sabourin is not anywhere close to the answer.  I know, neither was Ty Conklin, and I've been wrong before—but Fleury is what is going to keep the Penguins in games against high-scoring teams like the Senators, Flyers, and Rangers.

So, as I said, anything short of a Stanley Cup would be a disappointment—unless the fragility of some players becomes a problem.  At that point, a playoff appearance would be a success.

In conclusion, the Pens still need a few more pieces to duplicate that early-1990s dominance.  They need a Ken Wregget and a Kevin Stevens.  Those two pieces are not difficult to find.  My votes are for Daniel Carcillo (another up-and-comer that the Pens let get away) and Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago is looking for an excuse to get rid of him.  He's a good rental for the Cup push).

The Penguins are now the team to beat in the East, so the road will not be easy.

Here's the prediction:  Penguins def. Capitals in Conference finals.  Penguins vs. Dallas in Stanley Cup finals.  Wouldn't it be great if the next dynasty started against the very team the last dynasty started against?