The countdown is on until NHL training camps open. Shortly after that, we will see preseason hockey again and those of us that are considered hardcore NHL fans will feel complete once again.
For Penguins fans, the motto of the offseason has been that no NHL team will be able to improve themselves more than the Penguins with the return of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It seems that every Pens fan says that while clutching a rabbit's foot or touching wood though.
Generally speaking, you get the feeling that PensNation is a very fragile bunch right now. We see article after article speculating about Sid's health, his comeback, whether or not he has symptom's, etc.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to Crosby's return, nobody knows how it is going to go. That is not meant to be a pessimistic statement, mind you.
Chances are if you are the fretting type, there will not be many moments that you watch a Penguins game over the next few season where you will be comfortable with contact and Crosby.
As a fanbase, we need to get over that. Sidney Crosby and his agent and doctors will always do what is best for him both in terms of health and career. Past that, the Pittsburgh Penguins may have to learn to live with a constant uncertainty surrounding the situation.
My philosophy is always that you should expect the best and prepare for the worst. If Crosby is ever injured via concussion again, that is bridge we as fans cross if it needed.
Until then, in attempt to help the Penguins fans around the world get over their Crosby Complex, I wanted to be a total jerk and point out five areas of concern for the team that do not involve Sidney Crosby.
Yes, some of these are aimed to stir you up. The way I see it, if I get you defending players instead of hiding in a bomb shelter over Sid, then I am helping you prepare for the season the right way, breaking down x's and o's instead of CAT Scans.
Okay, I know this is a big one to start with, but I promise that I am not trolling on this subject, nor am I a Fleury hater.
Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the top goalies in the NHL when he is "on". The concern that Pens fans should have is how often is he going to be "off".
If he has proven anything over the course of his career, it is that he can shift in and out of moments as a dominant goalie. Last season, he got off to a very slow start.
That slow start lead to Coach Dan Bylsma seeming to play some head games with MAF, and even a period of time where Brent Johnson was just as important of an option in goal as Fleury was.
So, you can dismiss this as just the ramblings of another "Fleury hater" (again, I assure you I am not), but if you think about it you know the chance is there. Every player goes through tough stretches over the course of a season, so that does not make Fleury a bad player.
The main problem with any extended Fleury slump, is the way the team is built. Until proven otherwise, the offense is going to be feast or famine and largely dependant on Sid and Geno. When Fleury is off and the team is not scoring, losses can pile up quickly.
Another problem is the timing of the potential slump. In a best case scenario, if it pops up at all, it happens during the early portion of the season as it did in 2010-11.
In the worst case scenario, it happens late in the season like it did against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs.
Maybe it will not happen at all, but since we spend our time worrying about Sidney Crosby every second, why not speculate about some other players right?
In many of our minds, the Penguins are an offensive powerhouse because of the return of Crosby and Malkin. There will likely be some new line combinations that have the potential to make some dents in opposing team's goals against averages.
But none of that is guaranteed. With the central worry being Crosby, if he goes out for any period of time, where does the offense come from? I've gone on record as saying I think the return to form of Malkin is the most important piece for the Penguins.
A lot of the offense's success or failures will surround a few people. First is if Jordan Staal is paired with Malkin or not. I prefer Malkin and Staal on separate lines. You can read my thoughts on Malkin as a center or wing in this article.
Also, Tyler Kennedy plays a big role in the offense. Do you keep him on the bottom lines or move him in to a top 6 role? Can James Neal get it going when paired with Sid and Chris Kunitz (we sure better hope so)?
There also remains the possibility that it is not a guarantee that these combinations click. That happens sometimes, even with great players.
One thing that the Penguins have going for them without question is the defense. Early in the season, it seems likely that they will leaning on them when they are shorthanded.
Losing Max Talbot and Mike Rupp puts a dent in to what was the NHL's number one PK unit. Will their replacements be up to the challenge of the 86.1% kill rate that last year's team had?
If not, the Penguins had better settle down a bit. There were times last season when it seemed as if they took penalties just because they knew they could kill them off.
With the possibility of a new PK unit having to spread its wings, there is an unknown result there, especially in the first few months of the season. The return of Matt Cooke will help that, but again losing 2 primary penalty killers is not necessary as easy as plugging the next guy in and thinking it will have the same result.
Then there is the disaster that was the Penguins power play last season. In the regular season it converted at a 15.8% rate according to NHL.com. That was "good" enough to place them at 25th overall with the extra man.
It is not easy to break down and prove statistically, but the lack of success was not just because the second half of the season was spent without Crosby and Malkin. There were issues when both were in the lineup.
Both of these areas are a concern heading in to the season. With any luck, each will be right as rain by Thanksgiving if there are any struggles out of the gate.
Matt Cooke seems like a great guy off the ice. He has a family, does not get in to trouble, etc. When he gets on the ice, something snaps in him though.
Multiple times last season, Cooke was suspended for plays that were considered dirty, against the rules, intending to injure, or all of the above. Pens fans do not need to act like Steeler fans and say that we are being targeted, Cooke deserved every game of those suspensions.
At this point, you have to think that it is more likely that Cooke will do something stupid on the ice this year than he will not. If/when that happens, the suspension is going to be gigantic. Again, deservedly so.
As Penguin fans, we cannot sit and worry about headshots and whine over every thing that happens to Crosby for the rest of his career if our organization is not willing to take a stand on the issue of overall cheapshots.
For example, the picture that accompanies this slide is from when Cooke hit Fedor Tyutin from behind. Some say that Tyutin turned at the last minute. I say, you cannot hit a guy from behind like this.
Players need to be more responsible, and if Tyutin did turn at the last minute, he still only bears partial responsibility. The NHL should come to a point where any non-shooting action by a player is treated like a high stick.
Regardless of intent, if you hit someone from behind, you are putting them at risk. Fedor Tyutin could have been paralyzed in that picture. If you think that is a stretch, go to Youtube and look up the Travis Roy accident.
I am not posting it to be sensitive to anyone that does not want to see a person get paralyzed in a game of hockey. Roy was the aggressor in the act that left him gravely injured, so it is a miracle that more guys that have been run from behind have not suffered a similar fate.
Do I hope Matt Cooke avoids another incident? Yes, of course. If he does not, he has crossed the line in to Sean Avery or Jarrko Ruutu territory where every move he makes costs his team because of his reputation.
Actually, it may already be too late. He probably is already in that territory and should not expect any breaks from the referees.
Losing Max Talbot and Mike Rupp also worries me regarding overall team toughness. Rather than go over it word for word again, please go to this article on the subject that I completed.
Between the slides and the comments you may get the same feeling that I do. There are some real concerns about where the toughness will come from this season.
Overall, I hope this article got your mind off worrying about Sidney Crosby and his head for a few minutes. If it did, then I can smile.
Remember, there are plenty of other things that could wrong. Sid should be the least of our worries.