NHL free agency went live at 12:00 PM Eastern Time July 1st, and despite all the hubbub over the past few weeks, Jaromir Jagr did not sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, GM Ray Shero removed the offer from the table. Contrary to popular belief, the Penguins will still play out their schedule this season.
In fact, without Jagr, the Pens should still be considered one of the top teams in the East. The team is too talented to mope over losing out on one free agent, no matter how great he was or still is.
The question on many fans' minds is whether the team can make a run at another Stanley Cup. Simply put, the answer to that will be directly related to Evgeni Malkin's season.
Now at this point, many of you are thinking that I mean it will be directly related to Evgeni Malkin's season after Sidney Crosby in terms of importance. Let me assure you, I do not.
Crosby is great when healthy and more than likely he will return without any further ill effects from his concussion(s). He will lead the team both on and off the ice. Perhaps, he will even put up incredible numbers again as he did at the start of last season.
To get back to a Stanley Cup Championship, it will be all about Malkin though. A healthy, performing Malkin will allow Sid to roam even freer. Sure, Sid went on a rampage early last season without much help from Malkin, but who's to say that burden of carrying the team and its offense would not have worn him out before season's end?
2008-2009 Malkin is what the Penguins need. Motivated and having fun, he lead the NHL in scoring, and also captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as Finals MVP. Many argue that Marc-Andre Fleury also could have won it, but when you consider that Crosby was neutralized for that series, Malkin was the clear choice.
Comparing the stats, Crosby had one goal and two assists. Malkin had two goals and six assists. He was also a key factor in the sweep over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Malkin certainly is not solely to blame for the past two seasons being a disappointment, but he certainly had a hand in that. Injuries and a seeming malaise have lingered over him on the ice. His production dipped when viewed in a per game basis. The team has not made it past the second round of the playoffs either of the past two seasons, including this past one where both Crosby and Malkin were out of the lineup.
Luckily for Penguins fans, all reports have indicated that not only is Malkin ahead of schedule in his recovery from knee surgery, but highly motivated. Trib Total Media's Rob Rossi reported on his "Chipped Ice" blog June 11, 2011:
"Word was passed to me by several of his friends that he is looking at this upcoming season as a defining one to date for his NHL career. He wants to be 'back in the conversation' about the world's best player..."
If quotes from journalists do not tickle your fancy, consider this quote attributed to coach Dan Bylsma through Penguins.NHL.com
"We have heard through Sergei Gonchar, actually, that he’s never seen Geno working this hard and looking this good and this motivated at this time of the summer. So I expect a real motivated, a real focused guy and a guy who is ready to go for training camp – is probably already ready to go. I think he’ll be at full go coming into training camp and really motivated."
All in all, the start of free agency was tough for the Penguins. Losing Maxime Talbot and Mike Rupp are very unfortunate but not unexpected. The Jagr was odd, but nothing gained or lost. Unless of course, you are referring to Jagr's reputation in Penguins history. It seems likely Marian Hossa's jersey number would be retired before his now.
At the end of the day, the Penguins are who we thought they were going to be a team that relies on their stars. Here's to hoping that all the buzz surrounding Evgeni Malkin is legit, because this season is going to hinge on his ability to help Sidney Crosby carry the team.