2011 NHL Free Agency: The Questions That Remain for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Jennifer WoodContributor IJuly 7, 2011

2011 NHL Free Agency: The Questions That Remain for the Pittsburgh Penguins

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    It has already been quite an offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins. First, there was #JagrWatch which ended disastrously when Jaromir Jagr signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. Second, Penguins' forward Max Talbot followed Jagr to Philly, prompting many Pens fans to bash the "superstar" over Twitter. Then, they lost enforcer Mike Rupp to the New York Rangers.

    What remains is a host of questions, most of which will not be answered until October.

When Will Sid Return?

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    He put up 32 goals and 66 points in only 41 games. Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks won the "Rocket" Richard Trophy with just 18 more goals. Perry played in every game of the regular season. Crosby played in just half of those games.

    The question is: When will he return?

    Reports are that Crosby has been participating in his regular offseason workout schedule: working out twice a day, off-ice in preparation for training camp. Everything seems to be on schedule, and he's supposedly giving doctors in Pittsburgh updates on his condition.

    Physically, Crosby could be ready. Is he ready mentally? I'm not talking about the state of his brain. I'm talking about the state of his mind. It would seem so by the way he was working out and skating before the playoffs this past season.

    There are other factors in Crosby's return. Their names are Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero. As evidenced by HBO's 24/7 series centered on the Pens and Washington Capitals, Bylsma and Shero get together to decide who they will be putting in a lineup.

    Some might say that Crosby will tell them when he'll be back. However, I think Bylsma and Shero would have a bit of influence over his decision. See the conversation with Jordan Staal in 24/7. Everyone is aware of Crosby's impact when he's on and off the ice. Everyone is also aware of how valuable he is to the team.

    That being said, Crosby's work ethic and determination will get him back on the ice soon.

    Possible answer: He'll make an appearance during the preseason exhibition games.

When Will Geno Return?

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    It's rough looking at that photo and remembering that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal only played two games together last season.

    The good news about Crosby is only eclipsed by the astounding news about Malkin. The reports were that he was training during the playoffs with the aim (and actual possibility) of coming back if the Pens made it to the second round. One hopes they had made it just to see Geno back on the ice in record time.

    Ex-Pen Sergei Gonchar has been in contact with the team to let them know that Malkin is working out like a beast back in his native Russia. Gonchar said he has never seen Geno work like this, and he'll be more than ready when he returns to Pittsburgh.

    Possible answer: Geno tears it up during camp and is raring to go during the exhibition games.

Who Will Be the Enforcer?

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    Mike Rupp will be sorely missed. Eric Godard is no longer listed on the roster on the Penguins website, a sign he might not be back with them next season. That leaves us with this question:

    Who will be the one to protect the star players?

    No offense to Sidney Crosby, but he's not much of a fighter. Besides, he's not being paid to fight. The Pens still have Deryk Engelland, Matt Cooke and Arron Asham. They're going to need a solid enforcer when they meet up with the New York Islanders next season. The February brawl will not have been forgotten by either team that quickly.

    The only good thing about that brawl was that Crosby and Malkin were not on the ice. They will be when the Islanders and Pens meet again. Something tells me neither of them is going to want to take on Trevor Gillies.

    Possible answer: Hard to tell. This question will have to wait until October.

Who Will Be the Breakout Winger?

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    After Sid and Geno went down, Tyler Kennedy picked up his game and had the season of his career. As a result, Shero and the Pens awarded Kennedy with a sweet contract and made sure a team like the Flyers stayed away from TK.

    James Neal was a bit of a bust after the trade with the Dallas Stars for him and Matt Niskanen. However, don't be quick to put Neal on the back burner or write him off as a talented winger. Wait and see how he would play on a top line with Crosby. Crosby makes everyone better.

    Matt Cooke, while effective on the penalty kill, will be spending a majority of time (hopefully) working on keeping his elbows and shoulders down to avoid suspensions.

    Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, while great wingers and effective scorers, will be better in other ways. They could pick up the slack in creating space for other Pens players on the way to the net.

    Possible answer: Neal will thrive while finally getting the chance to play with Sid.

How Far Will the Penguins Go?

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    As a Pens fan, this picture makes me smile every time I see it.

    Every year, a fan can say their team will win it all. Whether it happens is a different story. This year, I'm going to say it's a very good possibility the Penguins make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals. I say this because of how well they did last season without their two big guns.

    Geno and Sid went out with injuries and the team seemed to say "Pssh! Whatever. We'll keep on playing well." And they did. Players stepped up in big ways. Tyler Kennedy stepped out of the shadows of Crosby and Malkin. Arron Asham went on a terror during the series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Marc-Andre Fleury was solid in net. Even Zbynek Michalek became a goal scorer! And who can forget Brooks Orpik's hit on Steven Stamkos? Stamkos is probably still feeling that one.

    All of those players mentioned are coming back.

    The Pens have a pretty solid defense. They have three very capable centers and some great wingers. Their net-minding is astounding. If everyone comes back healthy, and stays that way, the Pens will be a force to be reckoned with.

    Possible answer: Very deep into the Playoffs. Very, very deep.