Pittsburgh Penguins: 8 Things to Look Forward to Next Season

Laura FalconAnalyst IMay 11, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins: 8 Things to Look Forward to Next Season

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 27:  The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning shake hands after Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylv
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Almost two weeks have passed since Pittsburgh Penguins fans watched their team sputter to a miserable end when the Tampa Bay Lightning took Game 7 in the conference quarterfinals.

    It always takes some time to swallow and digest a series loss, especially a bitter one that included giving up a 3-1 series lead. But the upside to a bitter end is a new beginning.

    The Pens, despite the shortcomings from the playoffs, have plenty to look forward to when the summer comes to a close and a new season nears.

    Here are eight things to look forward to this fall.

     

    Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins.     Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu with any comments or questions.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Return

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28:  Evgeni Malkin #71 and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins line up for a face-off against the Atlanta Thrashers at Consol Energy Center on December 28, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Penguins defeated the Thr
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    I might as well get the most obvious out of the way.

    Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin probably want to forget about certain things this past season, specifically concerning the injury problems that ate away their season.

    For Malkin, who has started light skating sessions after suffering an ACL and MCL tear, a full recovery looks to be on the horizon. For Crosby, however, the future isn't as certain.

    Whether Crosby will be back to his old self, stringing together massive point streaks and acting like a one-man highlight reel, is unknown. But regardless of the final product we will see when Crosby takes his first strides on the ice, we are certain that Crosby will be able to return.

    Even if Crosby will never put together a record season, his unmatched work ethic will bring forth only positive results.

    Lost in the issues surrounding Crosby's concussion is what the Pens have lost by not having Malkin locked away with an injury.

    With the struggles on the power play, the Pens could have used Malkin's one-timer from the top of the circle. A pass fans so often associated with the following words from play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald: "From Gonchar...to Malkin."

    Having these two back will be so uplifting not only for the team, but for the fans as well. Crosby and Malkin have become a huge part of Pittsburgh.

Full Season with James Neal

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    TAMPA, FL - APRIL 20: James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against Mike Lundin #39 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times For
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Many fans are probably very disgruntled with James Neal, especially since he came over from Dallas with Matt Niskanen, who played an average playoffs; meanwhile, Alex Goligoski has thrived in Dallas.

    Be disgruntled no more, I say.

    Almost as memorable as Neal's overtime goal in the Game 4 against Tampa is the fact that Neal seemingly had more issues scoring than Eric Godard. It wasn't from a lack of effort, however.

    Neal was the workhorse of the team and his effort in each game, despite not scoring, reflected that of a player who had no problems putting the puck in the net. Many nagged him for not getting it done, but his work ethic behind his lack of scoring cannot and should not be knocked.

    Neal hit an incredibly long stroke of bad luck, but it's one that can be remedied if he can find a strong playmaker linemate: Sidney Crosby.

    Put those two together and the Pens have a very destructive duo. With Crosby's soft hands and uncanny ability to find players anywhere on the ice with Neal's aggressive forecheck and willingness to put the puck on the net, those two will be more than a handful for other teams.

Inaugural Season No More

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 23:  Pittsburgh Penguins fans pose for a photo in a giant goalie mask before the start of the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    This is for all you superstitious folk.

    The Pens have seen plenty of joy and heartbreak in their years at Mellon Arena. Opening the Consol Energy Center was the equivalent of a fresh start; a place where the destiny of the team's star players would shine.

    The high of opening a new arena was cut short with the poor start for the Pens at the start of the season. The condition of the ice the first few months seemed worse than the ice at the Igloo. Of course, there's the incident with the lights shutting off at the start of a period.

    It seems like the first season in a new building is full of quirks. Players and fans are still getting a feel for the arena.

    The Pens have one year under their belt at Consol. We won't hear about the "inaugural season" that was full of strange happenings anymore.

    Time for a real fresh start.

Matt Cooke Returns

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    NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 04:  Matt Cooke #24 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 4, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Penguins 2-1 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Sorry, NHL world, your favorite villain will be lacing up his skates in no time.

    That's right. Come October, Matt Cooke will be truly freed from the chains of suspension.

    I can name plenty of people who want nothing more than for Cooke to get the permanent boot from Colin Campbell, but most Pens fans will be relieved to have him back in the lineup. Since his suspension, his play—legal play, that is—has been sorely missed.

    Cooke is a master of agitation; he knows what to do to get under players' skin. Most importantly, the guy can play as well and is an integral part of the team's penalty-killing unit.

    Not to take anything away from Tampa Bay's power play, but there's a good reason why the Pens had the worst penalty-killing percentage during the playoffs while the boasting the No. 1 unit during the season.

    Cooke has earned a bad reputation because of some poor decision-making on the ice; however, he plays an important role in the execution of the Pens' system.

    It will be good to have him back as long as he keeps the bad choices away from the ice.

AHLers Will Get the Permanent Call-Up

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    TAMPA, FL - APRIL 25: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning tangles with Chris Conner #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times Forum on April
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    The Pens have 12 restricted and unrestricted agents entering the offseason. This is excluding players who ended their season in the farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    They also don't have a lot of cap space to do so.

    Ultimately, some AHLers will get the permanent call-up for the sake of the cap. With the injury problems the Pens faced throughout the season, we know the Pens coaching staff has gotten a good look at how well the farm boys do with the big kids.

    Looking at the success of the regular season, especially since it was spent without the team's stars, they're in good shape.

    The Penguins organization has one of, if not the best overall systems in the NHL. The quality of talent produced from within is unmatched and many players from Wilkes-Barre have been able to permanently graduate from their minor league status because of the system.

    Players like Dustin Jeffrey, Eric Tangradi, Joe Vitale or Nick Johnson have a good chance to start and remain in the lineup. And by no means is having them in the lineup going to be a downgrade of talent.

Defense Stays Put

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    TAMPA, FL - APRIL 20: Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends the net with the help of teammate Zbynek Michalek #4 against Simon Gagne #12 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first overtime period in Game Four of the Eastern Conf
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    General manager Ray Shero did wonders to the Pens defense following the 2010 playoffs.

    As a result, the Pens became one of the strongest teams defensively. The best part is every player on that top-notch defense is signed through next season.

    When the offense doesn't look nearly as stable, this is a huge source of relief.

    The Pens defense was a huge reason for the successful season. Kris Letang broke out of his shell to become a top player and was seriously considered as a Norris candidate. Defensive-minded players Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek did their jobs and then some in front of and around the net and Brooks Orpik emerged as a stronger leader than imaginable.

    Having this group together for another season gives the Pens an even greater chance to build their defense since they have been able to play with each other for some time and know each other's tendencies.

    And we all know how well Fleury plays when he has a solid defensive group in front of him.

Growth in Confidence

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 23:  (L-R) James Neal #18, Tyler Kennedy #48, Matt Cooke #24 and Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after Kennedy scored a late third period goal against the San Jose Sharks during the NHL game at Consol Energy
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    If you would have told a hockey fan that the Pens would end the regular season with 106 points and do it without Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal for major chunks of the season, they would have laughed in your face.

    It's because the idea is just that ridiculous.

    But that's exactly what happened.

    What the Pens managed to do without the likes of their top three centers was nothing short of spectacular. Players started playing to their full potential and showed everyone that Crosby, Malkin and Staal aren't all the team has to offer.

    The team's confidence was through the roof and they all probably learned a lot about themselves and each other because of everything that happened.

    These kinds of moments that forced the Pens to dig down as a team only to come out on top and better than before are so important to an athlete and can only benefit them in the long run.

Unfinished Business

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    MONTREAL- MAY 4:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins readies for a faceoff in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on May 4, 2010 in Montreal,
    Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    So much could have come from this season, but here we are, sitting on our couches watching as the playoffs move on instead of standing inside the Consol Energy Center to cheer our team on in person.

    It's even more difficult for the Pens. They don't need to be reminded what could have been this season at the pace they were going a few months into the season.

    It almost seems like a waste.

    However, it's starting to look more and more like an opportunity.

    When the Pens lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008, the hurt from that loss became motivation for the next season in training and during slumps. Look at where it got the team in 2009.

    The Pens saw what they were able to accomplish without Crosby and Malkin. You'd better believe this team is going to fight tooth and nail to recreate the season that could have been one for the ages for individual players and for the team as well.

    When the 2011-2012 season begins, the Pens will be hungry and this last season has given them plenty to be hungry about.