Coach Dan Bylsma has said he thinks this club is better than the one he had last season.
That's a pretty strong statement, considering last year's team won 49 games (second-most in franchise history).
But he does have a point; the Penguins have since added quality point-scorers Steve Sullivan and James Neal to their lineup, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang are coming off their best statistical seasons, and Malkin and Crosby will be fully rested and hungrier than ever for their second Stanley Cup Trophy.
So here are my seven predictions for the 2011-12 campaign. Some are bolder than others, but all are optimistic.
After all, the Penguins and their fans deserve to have high hopes for the upcoming season.
Okay, so the wing position definitely won't be a strength for the Penguins in 2011-2012, but it also won't be as big of a weakness as people seem to think—really.
Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy are coming off 20-plus-goal seasons. Kunitz's numbers shouldn't take a dip since he won't lose playing time when Malkin and Crosby return, but Kennedy's might. Seven of his 21 goals were scored on the power play, and he'll likely lose that spot when the big two return.
But now that Kennedy's proven he can flourish on special teams, the coaching staff may give him more opportunities. We'll have to see.
Then there's Matt Cooke.
Oh, Matt Cooke.
The problem with Cooke, of course, is keeping him on the ice not because of injuries, but because of penalties. He racked up a team-high 129 penalty minutes, and was suspended the final 17 games of the regular season and the playoffs for an illegal hit.
That being said, when Cooke is on the ice, he is a physical presence and an outstanding penalty killer. His hard-nosed play is one of the major reasons why Pittsburgh led the league in penalty kill percentage last season.
One fairly new Penguin who knows how to put the puck in the net is James Neal. In his first two NHL seasons with Dallas, Neal was the team's second-leading goal scorer. He didn't have much success with Pittsburgh last season, but he also never got the chance to play alongside Malkin or Crosby.
And don't forget—the kid is only 23 years old.
The Pens also added 37-year-old veteran Steve Sullivan to the roster during the offseason. Sullivan is a small, scrappy winger who has the ability to score at any time, as long as he can stay healthy. Since 2000, he's only played in 70-plus games four times, so out of all of Pittsburgh's wingers, Sullivan is the biggest hit-or-miss.
As evidenced, there is certainly some goal-scoring talent at the wing position. As long as they can stay on the ice—because of injuries or otherwise (ahem, Matt Cooke)—they will be quality complements to the big three of Crosby, Malkin and Staal down the middle.
Malkin works out with Mike Kadar in Russia.
Staying healthy will be the main focus for Evgeni Malkin in 2011-2012. He hasn't played a full season since 2008-2009 when he scored 113 points and won the Art Ross award. In 2009-2010, a shoulder injury left him sidelined for 14 games. Last season, he tore his ACL and PCL, and missed the second half of the season.
Before the shoulder injury, Malkin was a picture of health and consistency. Between 2006 and 2009, he played in 254 consecutive games for the Pens. Over the past two seasons, however, Geno has missed 52 regular-season games.
To get back to where he wants to be, Malkin has been training with Mike Kadar, the Penguins' strength and conditioning coach, in Malkin's native Russia.
"I have known Geno for five years now and I have never seen him this committed to getting healthier," Kadar said. "It has been an eye-opener for me with his determination and work ethic. He is committed to it every day, with no short cuts."
Malkin's recovery will be aided by a strong supporting cast. Because he's surrounded by quality point-scorers such as Crosby, Neal, Kunitz and others, Malkin won't be expected to shoulder the entire point-scoring load. Instead, he'll have time to regain his ice legs and work his way back to a high level of play.
For those of you who may suspect that a surgically-repaired knee will cause Malkin some problems on the ice, look no further than the example of Teemu Selanne, who underwent knee surgery during the 2004-2005 lockout. The two seasons prior to the injury, Selanne put up a modest 96 points in 160 games. The two seasons after the surgery, Selanne's output surged to 184 points in 162 games.
Granted, other injuries have slowed Selanne since then, but his comeback is proof that a player can have success—even flourish—after having a major knee operation.
Penguins fans expected James Neal to help fill the goal-scoring void left by injuries to Malkin and Crosby last season. Neal was picked up from Dallas on Feb. 21 and was touted as a goal-scoring threat, the answer to the Penguins' scoring problems from the wing.
After all, he had been the Stars' second-leading goal scorer in his first two NHL seasons.
But when he finally suited up for his new squad, Neal struggled to find the back of the net, scoring only one goal in 20 games.
To his credit, Neal did have a couple of season-defining moments. On March 23, he scored the lone shootout goal against the Devils, stringing out Martin Brodeur before flicking the puck into the top left corner of the net.
One month later, in double overtime against the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, Neal flung a wrister from the side wall that skipped past Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson and gave the Penguins a 3-1 series lead. Unfortunately, the Pens would go on to lose the series in seven games.
This season, Neal should have increased opportunities to tickle the twine. He has proven he can score when paired with a player who can feed him the puck—Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson were the assist-men in Dallas, Malkin or Crosby will be Neal's partners in Pittsburgh.
As long as those two stay healthy and keep giving Neal opportunities, look for his production to be much-improved over last season.
Whether you're a Penguins fans or not, and I am, there is no denying that Matt Cooke has leveled some very dirty hits against opponents.
His overly-aggressive style of play is so notorious, that there is a YouTube video dedicated solely to his "cheapshotting history." It's a violent, five-minute montage that could pass for a NHL promotional video created to show players what types of hits the league is trying to eliminate. But instead of showing different players committing the crimes, it's nothing but Matt Cooke throwing elbows to the head, knees to other player's knees and checking opponents from the blindside over and over again.
Throughout his career, Cooke has been suspended five times for dirty hits and hasn't gone an entire season without a suspension since 2007-2008. The stiffest penalty came last year after he threw an elbow into the jaw of the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. The NHL reviewed the case and decided to disallow Cooke from playing in the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. He was also fined $219,512.50 for the incident.
The hit was so blatantly malicious that even the Penguins couldn't argue with the punishment handed down by the league.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey," GM Ray Shero said. "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
Since Pittsburgh was ousted in the first round of the playoffs, Cooke hasn't set foot on the ice since March 20. What type of player—or more importantly, what type of person—will the Penguins be getting when he returns?
Cooke says he understands the need to change his style of play not only for the safety of others, but for his own livelihood. The NHL, with their increased focused on safety, will be observing him through a very powerful microscope, and one more out-of-line hit (even if it isn't as serious as the one on McDonagh) could cost him a significant amount of time, possibly even his career.
The difficult part for Cooke will be adjusting to a cleaner style of hockey while still maintaining that aggressive edge that has made him a successful player for the past 13 years. But if he wants to keep his job—and his money—he will learn how to make that change very, very quickly.
Crosby's played exactly half of the season last year and still managed to lead the Penguins in all major offensive categories. He was on pace to tally 132 points, which would have been 28 more than Art Ross-winner Daniel Sedin.
The question is whether Sidney Crosby can return that high level of play after falling victim to a severe concussion.
In my article "Will Sidney Crosby Ever Fully Recover?", I discuss certain players' effectiveness upon returning to the ice after suffering season-ending concussions. Most players, such as Paul Kariya and Pierre Marc-Bourchard, were able to return to their pre-concussion levels of production (although Kariya was eventually forced to retire due to a head injury). Some, such as Patrice Bergeron, were not.
Based on history, it's unlikely Crosby's play will be affected by any residual effects from last year's injury. It may take him a week or two to get reacquainted with the speed of the game, but as long he can avoid another concussion, he should return to his elite level of play.
Under normal circumstances, predicting Crosby to win a scoring title would not be very bold. He's arguably the most gifted player in the world and therefore always a threat to win an Art Ross award.
But for him to win the award a year after suffering such a devastating injury would be an unexpected accomplishment, and one that would likely put him in the running for the NHL's Comeback Player of the Year award as well.
Tyler Kennedy stepped up his production in the absence of Crosby and Malkin. Like Malkin, he's 25-years old.
The Penguins have never won 50 games in a season.
Oddly enough, they came within one game of the mark last year, despite the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a good portion of the season.
There is good reason to believe that the 2011-2012 squad will surpass last season's win total, as long as the big-name players can stay injury-free, of course.
If they can, what the Penguins have is a group of talented young players entering the prime years of their career.
Crosby, who turned 24 Aug. 7, was on pace for a career year before the injury. Marc Andre-Fleury, 26, stepped up mightily in his absence, posting career-highs in GAA and save percentage. His performance was so impressive that many publications, including the New York Times and Thehockeywriters.com, mentioned his name in the MVP discussion.
Another player who stepped up was 25-year-old Tyler Kennedy. He posted career-highs in goals, assists and points, thanks to an increased role on the Penguins' power play unit.
Perhaps the one player other than James Neal who will benefit most from the return of Malkin and Crosby is defenseman Kris Letang. Letang had an impressive first half (7 goals, 34 assists) with the Big Two in the lineup, but his production dropped off the map after the All-Star break (1 goal, 8 assists). As long as Malkin and Crosby stay healthy, Letang should put up numbers on par with some of the best offensive defensemen in the league.
Of course, a talented team on paper does not necessarily translate to success on the ice. Injuries, drop-offs in production and other unexpected twists of fate can sink a team at the snap of a finger.
However, if all does go according to plan, the 2011-2012 Pens have a very good shot at winning 50 games.
With a roster as experienced and exciting as the Penguins have this year, a championship is not only a prediction, but an expectation.
That being said, I'm predicting that this year's Penguins will live up to that expectation.
First of all, as I stated on a previous slide, the Pens have a group of talented young players entering the prime years of their career.
Crosby is 24. Malkin is 25. Fleury is 26. Staal, Kennedy, Letang, and Neal are all under the age of 25.
Kennedy, Fleury, and Letang (despite an awful second half last season) are coming off the best statistical season of their respective careers.
Crosby put up insane numbers before his season-ending injury. How insane? He was 14th in the league in goals despite only playing 41 games.
Not to mention that the team, as a whole, captured the President's Cup despite injuries to the Big Two. This shows that the team has some quality depth underneath the star power.
On the flip side, the 2011-2012 Penguins also have older, more experienced players who know how to win in the NHL. Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and many others were members of the 2009 Stanley Cup Championship team. Steve Sullivan, who was signed July 1, helped the Predators to the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Tying it all together is Dan Bylsma, who is coming off a season in which he won Coach of the Year honors.
It makes me wonder how other coaches would have fared last season if they had lost their two best players to injury. How would Guy Boucher have done without Stamkos and St. Louis? What about Alain Vigneault without Sedin and, well, Sedin?
Methinks not too well.
The Penguins' time is now. They have three of the most physically-gifted centers in the league, a Hart Trophy candidate between the pipes, a brigade of wily veterans and a proven winner manning the wheel from behind the bench.