BT's 2008-09 NHL Season Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

xx yySenior Writer ISeptember 29, 2008

Preface: Alright, so I'm a little angry right now.

Due to the fact that I'm knee-deep in season previews, I'm a little at a loss to do research for an MLB playoff column, and three of the games start wednesday.

I'll see what I can do between now and then, but I can't guarantee any miracles. All I can say is that if the Minnesota Twins represent the AL Central, then their series with the Tampa Bay Rays will be excellent—possibly a first-round classic.

I'm not so confident if the Rays go up against Chicago White Sox but that's just me.

Continuing along into the Atlantic, the Pittsburgh Penguins are primed to be a powerhouse for the next five to seven years.

Their three key forwards are ridiculously talented—so much so that the Pens don't need to surround them with exceptional talent, just talent.

Roster Additions: Miroslav Satan-F (F.A.), Matt Cooke-F (F.A.), Ruslan Fedotenko-F (F.A.), Eric Godard-F (F.A.), Dany Richmond-D (Trade)

Roster Subtractions:
Georges Laraque-F (F.A.), Marian Hossa-F (F.A.), Ryan Malone-F (Trade), Gary Roberts-F (F.A.), Ty Conklin-G (F.A.), Tim Brent-F (Trade)

How did 2007-08 go?
47-27-8, 102 points, second in Conference, first in Atlantic division, Lost in Stanley Cup Finals.

2008-09 Goal:
First in the league, Stanley Cup Champions

Let's Break'er down...

Possibly the best thing to happen to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season was to lose in the Stanley Cup Finals to Detroit.

That loss did a few things. First of all, it ensured that the youngsters learned that nothing is guaranteed year-in, year-out, no matter how good you are. Second, it gave them an experience to learn from, as it's not often a team like this is faced with that kind of adversity.

Third, it ensured that the fire for this season wouldn't be gone and the team wouldn't get lackadaisical.

Do you want Smarties or M and M's with your McFleury?

The Penguins start with Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Now, I've never been sold on Fleury as an NHL goalie. Ever since he banked that puck off the American forward at the World Junior tournament a few years ago, costing Canada the game, I thought that Fleury would be an average NHL goalie, at best.

So far he's proven me wrong, except for him falling out of the gate of Game One of last year's Stanley Cup Finals.  That fall was very average—only a four in my books.

The fact, is though, confidence or not, Fleury is still one of the most flexible, acrobatic goalies in the NHL today. He has a quick glove hand, and the same unpredictability that made Dominik Hasek famous.

Health is his big concern this season.

In 2006-07, when Fleury was healthy, he posted a 40-win season, although his goals-against average and save percentage (2.82 and .906) were a little out of whack for a starter in the NHL.

In 35 games last season, Fleury went 19-10 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average. However, that's just 35 games—thanks to an injured ankle.

If it weren't for Ty Conklin's revitalization in net—and Evgeni Malkin stepping it up in the points department—the Penguins could have fallen heavily last season.

If Fleury goes down this season, the Penguins—already sporting a banged-up defense—could be in real trouble.

Dany Sabourin is their only insurance if Fleury goes down this season, which is risky business—especially when you look at the trouble he had last year.

Throughout Fleury's injury period (December 8 to February 9—the time frame he was off the roster) Sabourin was 4-4 and allowed 23 goals over that period. Sabourin has also gone a while without seeing any regular-season action, as his last game was February 21 for the Penguins.

Also, outside of Fleury's injury period, Sabourin has allowed four or more goals six times, and three goals seven times.

If Fleury gets injured or Sabourin struggles in backup duty, the Penguins could be eyeing the market for a second backup goalie.

Gonchar are two of their best...I hate Whitney'ing stuff like this

Early on, the Pittsburgh Penguins have taken some shots to their defense.

Gone are Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, with shoulder and foot surgeries respectively.

Gonchar’s injury immediately cripples the power play, removing a 60-point producer from the back end, as well as a defenseman who works extremely hard at moving the puck up ice and generating offense out of his own zone.

In losing Whitney, the Pens lose a defenseman on the rise who was really coming into his own offensively last season, and was even starting to develop his defensive tools.

Although losing both is a terrible setback early on to this team, it may also help the development of some of the younger defensemen.

Alex Goligoski is the type of player who can step into that offensive role and thrive. Because of some size issues, there have been questions about whether or not he’ll get dominated at the NHL level—but if Goligoski can perform well in the increased ice time, then the power play won’t miss too much of a step.

In the same light, Kris Letang’s role will become more important as well. Letang posted two quality seasons in his last years in the QMJHL, and he even proved he can score at the AHL level with seven points in just 10 games last season. If he can transfer his puck-moving game to the highest level, use his shot early and often, and really start to dominate in his own end, then Letang may be destined for superstardom as early as this season.

Darryl Sydor remains the elder statesman on this defense, but his main assets this season are going to be providing leadership and being a depth guy. The days of Sydor scoring 40 or 45 points are long gone, and the legs are a little slower—but when the younger defensemen are faced with stepping up in the face of adversity, Sydor could not be more useful.

Brooks Orpik is also developing into a fine, young, physical defenseman. He still takes some inopportune penalties, but if he really steps into a role of leadership on the back end this season, and shows that he can be responsible and be “the physical guy” at the same time, Orpik will be dangerous.

Hal Gill remains as another big presence on the Pittsburgh defense, but it’ll be interesting to see how he does against the quicker forwards in the Atlantic Division. Matching up against Zherdev, Gagne, and Gionta, Gill could become someone to pick on for the opposition—although he did look strong in his short audition with the Pens last season (18 games, four points, plus-6).

Until Gonchar and Whitney are back, though, the Pens really need the depth guys to step up.  Rob Scuderi needs to be a steady presence, while Mark Eaton will need to show that he’s fully recovered from a torn MCL last season.

It’ll be an interesting few months on the back end for the Penguins.

Crosby, Staal, and Malkin oh my...

Do we really need to spend a lot of time on this?

Sidney Crosby is a bona fide star. He’s fast, he’s got hands, he’s got the shot…..what else do you want to say? I may not like him, but damn he’s good.

Evgeni Malkin—well, I hate when people call him "Gino." It just seems kind of lazy to me. I don’t know if he likes it or not, but for me? I’ll never call him "Gino."  He’s a 100-point guy with moves like you wouldn’t believe—you can call him Evgeni.

Jordan Staal is most likely going to recover from a sophomore slump (28 points, minus-5) and recapture his 30-goal, plus-16 form. If it wasn’t for Mike Richards in Philly, Staal could be called the most dangerous two-way forward in the Atlantic—more likely, the game. Then again, when other teams key on Malkin and Crosby, you may get overlooked a bit too.

Then for energy—like they need more—the Pens have Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy down the middle. And if Maxime Talbot grows his beard? Watch out.

Now, who will these guys be feeding on the wings?

Well, let’s start with some replacements.

The replacement for Georges Laraque is Eric Godard. Given the choice, I’d take Laraque because, even as an enforcer, he seems to be more of a quality weapon.  Nut despite what he lacks on offense, Godard does what he’s paid to do—and that’s drop the gloves.

Replacing Marian Hossa will be Miroslav Satan—quite possibly the only player who should be allowed to wear a triple-digit jersey in any sport, ever. Satan has developed into a constant threat to hit the 30-goal mark in a season, but really struggled with the New York Islanders last season. Then again, he’ll playing with any of Staal, Crosby, or Malkin at basically any point in time.

You can call him a wild card, but don’t be surprised if Satan explodes for goals this season.

Matt Cooke is replacing Jarkko Ruutu. Although he’s a very edgy player, Cooke will struggle to find some offensive consistency this season. He’ll be good for energy and opening up room with a bit of speed, and he may look good on a line with Jordan Staal.

Ruslan Fedotenko is in too, and he’ll be helping fill the void left by the departed Ryan Malone. If he’s surrounded by quality offensive threats (which he will be) then Fedotenko can be dangerous.

As far as returning players go—well, Petr Sykora is back. Sykora could be even better this season, as he’s grown into a comfortable role with this Pittsburgh team, and could score 30 goals for the first time since 2002 (with Anaheim), and could also hit 40 assists.

Pascal Dupuis will also be an interesting case to watch. Can Sid the Kid uncover the untapped talent that Dupuis has, or will he just tread water this season?

Janne Pesonen could be an interesting player to watch for the Penguins this season. Brought in on a one-year contract from Finland, Pesonen has developed into a dependable scorer, posting 78 points in his final 56-game season for Karpat Oulu. He’s a smaller player (5’11, 185lbs) so he may run into some trouble at the NHL level, but if he gets the room to be creative, he could be a very interesting weapon in whichever way the Penguins choose to deploy him.

Depth-wise the Pens have Jeff Taffe, Bill Thomas, and Paul Brissonnette—all players who’ll play important roles keeping the opposition off the score sheet when the big guns aren’t on the ice for the Penguins.

So what's it all mean?

People are going to say that the Penguins lost a lot when Marian Hossa departed for Detroit this offseason. Granted, he was nice, but Hossa was more like the fourth cheese on your pizza.  It’s great to keep clogging up your arteries (or ice time, I guess) with something good, but it’s kind of unnecessary—especially when your first three cheese are Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.

Crosby has done magical things with unproven players (Colby Armstrong anyone?) before, Malkin proved that he wasn’t just a Russian enigma on the second line behind Crosby last season, and people want to sign with Pittsburgh because they want to play with some of the best, most-exciting players in the league.

They’re going to be hurt early on by the loss on the back end to injuries, but nothing that this team can’t overcome as the season wears on.

First in Atlantic

And now with your Community Leader's View from the Pressbox, Pittsburgh Penguins Community Leader Eric Kuzmiak:

GOALIES: Dany Sabourin has proved that he can be magnificent at times—as a backup, and a backup only. As you stated, he didn't exactly show the No. 1 goaltender qualties when Fleury went down last season, and in all likelihood, he won't show them again this year if Fleury is sidelined for any length of time.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' (AHL) number-one goalie is John Curry. Curry had an impressive training camp, and is still with the team on their Euro-trip. If Sabou falters early on, I wouldn't be surprised to see Curry get the call-up to backup the Flower.

DEFENSE: As far as the injuries go, it sucks. There's no two ways around it. Losing your top two offensive defensemen isn't good for any team, at any point in the season. However, if I am forced to find something positive in the situation, it is this—it is much better that these injuries are happening in September rather than February of March. Gonchar is slated to be out six to eight weeks and Whitney is expected to be ready for action sometime during late December or early January.

That being said, Kris Letang is the biggest factor on the blue line. Letang was by far the most unexpectedly impressive player on the Pens' roster last season. He didn't put up big offensive numbers—which Michel Therrien has made a point about him improving—but his play in the defensive zone was great. Letang has the potential to be a legitimate number-two defensemen on the top pairing, alongside Brooks Orpik.

Goligoski might be better offensively than Letang, but I don't expect him to put up any impressive numbers in his first 20 or so NHL games. He is an adequate replacement for Whitney, running the back-door-play on the power play, but he hasn't shown me that he can be a top-six D-man once the rest of the roster is healthy—yet.
FORWARDS: Jordan Staal has been moved from his natural center position back to the wing. He has played alongside Malkin and Sykora on the second line during the preseason. While I think this will do wonders for Staal's offensive game, his defensive prowess won't be relied upon as much at even strength when he is on the wing. He will still see a lot of time on the PK, and I think the move to the wing will benefit him overall.
The Pens' third line is going to be fun to watch. Cooke-Talbot-Fedotenko was the pairing during the preseason, and they worked extremely well together. All three guys play a gritty game, can work the boards well, and are deceptively quick on the ice.
The only question mark in my mind remains with Pascal Dupuis occupying the other wing alongside Crosby and Satan. Dupuis has the speed to keep up with Sid, but he showed last season his inability to put the puck in the net when Sid sets him up.

I think that if Janne Pesonen develops quickly, he could find himself on the top line sometime during the course of the season. Pesonen seems to be adjusting to the North American style of hockey rather easily, and playing on the fourth line (likely alongside Taffe and Kennedy) early in the season should allow him to ease into a bigger role as the season progresses.

There you have it folks, one more until the Northeast!

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out his previous work in his archives.


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