Last year was a crazy year for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They played the last half of the season without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They played the first half without center Jordan Staal. They almost used the entire Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Pens team.
They traded Alex Goligoski, the future of the power play, to the Dallas Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. Then they traded for former Pens All-Star Alexei Kovalev. If you look at the Penguins' Opening Day roster and compared it to the roster that lost a seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, they have absolutely no comparison.
Marc-Andre Fleury had a career year and could have easily been nominated for the Vezina trophy. Sidney Crosby might have had a career high in points had he not gotten injured. Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy had career years, with 50 points and 45 points, respectively. Matt Cooke got suspended again. The Penguins opened up the brand new, state-of-the-art Consol Energy Center and hosted the Winter Classic.
It was a very fun, very entertaining and very up-and-down year for the team, the franchise and the fans. Let's face the facts, though. Right now is the future. The Penguins have the best player in the game, another top-10 forward in Malkin, a top-10 goaltender and a pretty deep depth chart. Right now is about winning a Stanley Cup.
In order to do that, they have to do and hope for a few things.
Who should James Neal be on a line with?
1. James Neal has to come through. Neal, who struggled without a play-making center for the Pens, is still 23 years old and has scored 24, 27 and 22 goals in his three NHL seasons. Neal was one of the most criticized Pens in the playoffs and down the stretch last year, after being traded to Pittsburgh from Dallas.
The Penguins lack depth at the winger position. Neal has all of the tools to be a top-line winger. He should flourish with either Crosby or Malkin as his center. Whether he plays with Crosby or Malkin, I expect 25 goals or more for Neal. I expect a big year out of Neal this year. The Pens are hoping for one, too.
2. The Penguins need to be healthy. Last year, the Penguins lost both Malkin and Crosby for the entire second half of the season and playoffs. You're not going to win a Cup without those guys. With Malkin, Crosby and the rest of your core players healthy, you should be able to. As long as the Penguins have a healthy Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Orpik and Staal, they're contenders. Without them, well, let's hope it doesn't come to that.
3. Malkin has to play like Malkin. Evgeni Malkin has the ability to be the best player in the world. He's shown us by winning a Stanley Cup, scoring title and Conn Smythe trophy. However, the last two seasons he's been, well, disappointing. Malkin should be a player that produces a little over a point per game. So if he plays 75 games, I'll expect at least 85 points.
Is it Stanley Cup or Bust for the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Malkin gets paid like he's Crosby. I mean, right now Steven Stamkos is making a million dollars less than Geno, and his numbers the last two years blow Malkin's away. Malkin needs a big year for both himself and for the Penguins.
4. The power play has to be better. Well, statistically it really has to be better. It couldn't possibly be any worse, could it? During the Penguins' series loss to the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs last year, their power play went 1-35. 1-35! That's unacceptable for a professional hockey team.
Now you can tell me that they didn't have Crosby and/or Malkin, but they really weren't excelling on the power play before those two got hurt. The Penguins were 25th in the NHL in power-play percentage.That's not going to cut it for a team that has two scoring champions on it. If the Pens can fix their power play, this team should contend for the President's trophy for the regular season.
Now, these aren't the only things that need to happen for this team to return to the Promised Land as Stanley Cup champions. The future is now for this franchise. Crosby, Malkin and Fleury all in their prime should equal multiple Stanley Cups.
The Penguins haven't made it past the second round in the playoffs in the last two years. That's fine. We can't expect them to win the whole thing every year. That being said, what happened to the dynasty talk? This team has to be hungry. Going home early in the playoffs should do that to you.
Taking that into consideration, along with the fact that their biggest rivals (the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers) have made a lot of moves to try and compete for a Cup, should add more fuel and motivation to this team.
I have big expectations for this team. I think Crosby and Malkin are set for huge years. I think the Penguins have a team that should be considered as having the most talent and depth in the NHL.
I hate to say it, but it's Cup or bust for this team.
Let's go Pens!