From the unenlightened perspective, the summer of 2011 would seem like three months of stagnation for Pittsburgh hockey. Off the heels of the most debilitating and ill-timed slew of injuries in the history of the franchise, some could question if the team's prestige hasn't steadily fallen since the Winter Classic.
Suddenly, many fans view Pittsburgh as a bunch of beaten men. In their eyes, Crosby won't return to his former glory and Malkin will lose a step. From their perspective, a lack of dynamic signings translates to a lack of championship mettle.
Can one fully blame the naysayers for their skepticism? For the casual fan, this offseason has not appeared as a re-tooling session, especially amidst the loudness of Philadelphia's free agent signings. Atop of the already lingering questions resulting from injuries, the Penguins will have a gigantic asterisk above their heads, and the words beside it will be "pending health." Or, pending any number of unpredictable factors.
Crosby continues to rehabilitate after concussions (presumably) kept him out of the lineup for half of last season, including the playoffs. His future once seemed very uncertain, amidst retirement rumors and a perceived hesitation to have him engage in full practices. Those concerns have settled.
How would you grade the Penguins' off-season?
While he is skating well and seemingly prepared for a prompt return, fans will surely be on edge when he absorbs that first vicious check of the season.
A Pens team without Crosby is not black and gold, but the result would be black and white, just like the actual bird—a team left in the cold.
Pens haters also take comfort in the injury of Evgeni Malkin, an ACL tear that Geno is rigorously rehabilitating in preparation for October.
These were not the only casualties since January.
Max Talbot, a key contributor during the Stanley Cup run, left to play for the fans he hushed that infamous April day when the Flyers lost to Pittsburgh...again.
Mike Rupp followed, taking his physical prowess to New York, and a new question arose: Are they still tough enough? The lineup still possesses enough grit to win, though many will question this merit.
Lastly, the franchise began talks toward negotiation with Jaromir Jagr and his agent, tendering an offer to the former Penguins star to rejoin a franchise and the fans he had disenchanted in his final days.
"Mario Jr." was mum, nowhere to be found, and otherwise unable to be reached. Jagr went to Philadelphia. In a way, this was fitting of the Penguins' approach of not going overboard and keeping it simple.
Is there any doubt the Penguins had a Cup contender before their misfortune last season? Being mindful to the talent already in place, Shero's quiet approach works.
Despite all of the concerns of those who are unconvinced, there is one factor that—if it were to possibly occur—would ensure the team as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in this generation.
For all of the expectations that big signings equate to big results, the biggest acquisition for the franchise is one that cannot be fully guaranteed:
For all of the rumors and notions of genius about how management should handle the team, the squad is still a top-ranked Eastern Conference heavyweight when healthy. While two recent exits in the early playoffs will skew their perceived potential, a Pens team with all of its components could be the best team in hockey.
For their failures, it is easy to underestimate the depth of their talent, where Jordan Staal serves as the third center on the depth chart. Imagine the benefit of health on players like Staal, who will be able to take advantage of favorable matchups that simply weren't available due to the circumstances of last season.
How should the Penguins implement James Neal and Steve Sullivan?
Despite their misfortune, when Crosby and Malkin fell, the rest of the ranks did not look disheartened. They played hard. Second liners played the league's top defenders, and stars who would otherwise not be hoisted into the spotlight drew the attention of a curious hockey nation.
Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a squad that came within one shot of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, the semi-Penguins forced a Game 7 decided by the narrowest of margins: one goal.
In fact, perhaps that is the biggest reason that the Pens' lack of offseason flurries should be of no alarm: They will still boast one of the league's finest goaltenders and a championship defense.
Amidst the slew of injuries (that went far beyond Malkin and Crosby), "Flower" stepped up his game last spring, garnering talks of league MVP amongst fans and players alike. Behind his stellar play throughout 2011, the team obtained 106 points and nearly claimed the Atlantic Division Championship.
The defense was a smart, physical unit that returns a solid corp.
Despite superb net-minding and great determination, the team was unable to score goals, their acquisitions left to fend off the league's finest defenders. Sadly, this occurred in unison with one of the team's finest defensive campaigns.
James Neal? Aside from appeasing himself in overtime, he was a relative no show. It became clear he would only benefit from the presence of a star center, such as Sidney Crosby.
And Alexei Kovalev?
Needless to say, for the purpose of improving scoring from the wing, in addition to building chemistry with young stars, the team needed to find a solid winger with powerful scoring stick.
Even before the injuries to their top stars, the Penguins' lack of production from the wings and inefficient power play were concerns.
Shero took a subtle approach toward making these improvements, an approach that will work. With a defense that promises to continue to play a smart, physical brand, any additional production on offense will reach far.
The team kept Pascal Dupuis, who already has a great on-ice relationship with Sid, and obtained Steve Sullivan from Nashville. With the inevitable improvement seen in the games of Neal, 2011 should prove to be a much more successful season in terms of wing production. Sullivan, an underrated talent and crafty veteran with the Predators, will surprise fans with a 70-plus point season.
In summary, the team had a simple approach to the offseason: address a few needs and keep most of the roster intact.
Mission accomplished. And, it was a successful mission, especially for one reason that Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux are surely aware of: there was never any reason to panic.
In fact, the Penguins are flying well below radar. In nature, Penguins don't even fly at all. If that is how the hockey public wants to view the Pens, I'm sure that will be just fine by them.
A year removed from a healthy lineup combined with major movement within the division has caused the Penguins' status to drop. While most don't see them among the handful of teams with the best chance of winning it all, their fall from grace cannot be considered an entrance into mediocrity. Those who know this team realize that they've only taken on the identity of the quiet killer.
In fact, that status shouldn't be labelled as quiet for very long.
Sure, Philadelphia made waves with Jagr and Talbot, and the Rangers may have obtained Brad Richards and Mike Rupp.
But in 2011, Pittsburgh will obtain new talent of its own:
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
If their Penguins' offseason deserved a grade, it would be a "C." The Penguins did a phenomenal job of managing the roster with more limited cap room than normal.
So, why the "C?"
Quite simply, the "C" is for Cup. And, if absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, the dynamic duo's hockey hunger may be the biggest free agent of the NHL offseason.