If the opening-round playoff exit for the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins could be defined in one word, most would mention health. I'd say, "deterrence."
Even at their optimum, with bumps and bruises at a premium across the roster, the team must know that a realistic run at the Stanley Cup in the coming season will require, at the very least, some subtle changes.
To put it simply, there are things that the Cup winning Pens of 2008-09 did that the most recent team offerings were unable to accomplish. It's easy to be blinded by the team's core talent into believing that "Pittsburgh" will be engraved into the Cup again as a matter of destiny. In reality, only 11 players remain from the championship squad that gathered around Marc Andre-Fleury after Game 7 in Joe Louis Arena.
In real life, penguins may not fly, but to add the capital "P" and give the bird a hockey stick is to expect unlimited heights. Like nature's birds, however, Pittsburgh was grounded last season. Injuries resulted in a lack of offensive punch, especially at the "wing" positions, serving as a prelude to doom.
Injuries did not exclusively cause scoring to drop. There were other factors.
Gone was the seamless and timely power play from two years earlier, where Sergei Gonchar provided stability at the special teams' least heralded, but perhaps most important, position: the point. The defenseman was a deadly sniper from the blue line and his lack of presence allowed defending units to bottle up the area in front of the net, as well as the corners.
In hockey, like crime and justice, a deterrent is key to making the machine work. In other words, what liability do you present to your opponent if they fail to address a certain player? With Gonchar, there was an obvious reason for the defense not to shift their focus exclusively on Crosby and Malkin at the corners.
It was worse than just losing Gonchar in 2010-11, as Crosby and Malkin were both gone due to injuries. In other words, there was little deterrence on the team as a whole, and with a shortage of scoring depth in the line-up, the defensive-minded Penguins lost their final game of the season, a 1-0 defeat to Tampa Bay.
Even with the loss, the team clearly had a lot of pride.
By the 2010-11 season's end, nearly half of the team's scoring output was off the starting roster. Yet, the Pens obtained 106 points and pushed the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Game 7.
Make no mistake: The 2011 Penguins will still sport one of the finest defenses in the game of hockey
It would be simple to translate this to a basic theory of upcoming success. The Penguins have key pieces to make a remarkable run in almost any season. Yet, the key to their campaign will be to avoid any invincibility complex that comes with a dynamic, young core.
First, we don't know who will be healthy enough to play (you know who I refer to) and when.
And, even the best have no guarantee of a return to glory. Just ask the Atlanta Braves' pitching rotation or Dan Marino.
Nevertheless, with a superb goaltender (yes, I said it) in Marc Andre-Fleury, a solid defense and dreams of a healthy season for an all-star cast, the odds of a Pittsburgh Penguins return to glory in the form of dances with Stanley are currently listed as 9:1. While this seems a long shot, compared against odds of 11:2 (Canucks) and Capitals (17:2), the team is perceived to be right in the mix.
Make no mistake: apathy will cause fans to look back on this era of Penguins hockey and ask, "How did we not get back?" Every season must be plotted with serious consideration, absent being the over-reliance on the concept of inevitability—that with our young stars we're destined to return.
That said, how does the team get better? I believe it starts with three key considerations:
1) Play better with the lead. This includes playing on offense, and not limiting the focus in key situations to defense. Scoring another goal or keeping the puck in offensive ice is as good as protecting a one-goal lead. In 2009-10, it appeared as though the Pens had lost a focus on defensive ice. This past season was an injury-plagued campaign, biasing perceptions on what could have been a return to glory. Yet, was there too much focus on defense?
2) Obtain personnel with keen offensive skills on the power play, namely a scoring threat from the point.
3) Upgrade the wingers.
And, according to other fans who have a good point, the team could use some more "garbage" goals from inside the crease!
What they do NOT need is added physicality!
Despite the exits of Max Talbot and Mike Rupp from the squad, two losses that certainly hurt, the Penguins could still survive—perhaps even lucratively—with their current mettle. If not, frankly, finding a protective body who plays a decent game can come at an affordable price throughout the season.
That said, the signing of Steve Sullivan from the Nashville Predators is a bigger deal that most people realize.
Sullivan is a consistent 50-plus point scorer when he is able to complete a season. While he comes with health questions (back surgery), the entire Penguins season will be a leap of faith on the medical front. Yet, a great two-way player, Sullivan has never been surrounded with the talent that he will likely accompany in what will be his only season in Pittsburgh. He is an obvious fit for either Crosby or Malkin's line and I predict a 70-point or greater season from the incredibly overlooked Sullivan.
After the signing of Sullivan, the next priority has to be the replacement for the most obvious gap in the line-up, though one that fans seem to be unaware of in many circles: the next Gonchar.
His skill sets can vary, but Sergei Gonchar was the lynch pin that supremely balanced the Pens' championship line-up, balancing defensive know-how with a deadly shot. His presence on the power play made everything run more smoothly, and his absence from it illustrated his value.
Who can bring that type of value to the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Last season, conversation erupted about the potential replacement for the loss of Gonchar, Paul Martin. Make no mistake: Martin played a critical role on the squad, coming from New Jersey.
Yet, for all of Martin's strengths, he didn't make up for that one key word that best described Gonchar's time in the Steel City: deterrence.
The Penguins have great defenders coming up through their affiliated ranks, but none seem to have the balance of a point-ready shot and defensive prowess. For example, a great defenseman could be a budding young talent in the Pens' own backyard, Simon Despres. He is a towering figure and a fine prospect, selected 30th overall in the entry draft by the Penguins.
His area of weakness? His shot.
Naturally. "Gonchar Guys" are just simply hard to find.
If the Pens can find a scoring threat from the point, I believe they have all of the makings of a Stanley Cup Champion: a heady coach, a great goalie, scoring and balance on offense, toughness, solid defense and the biggest current absence from the roster: powerful play on the power play.
Health is a critical component to all of these aspirations, and a healthy team will be a successful team. With the return of key players comes a return to form in all elements of the game and an assured playoff spot.
Nevertheless, that's the thin line between the Stanley Cup and a first-round exit: those last minute adjustments, albeit to the game plan or the roster.
A scroll of the team's players listing causes the curious eye to rise. If one were to review the names only on reputation, having never seen the Pens play, they could surmise that ours matches the best card in the NHL.
And it does.
So, perhaps the optimistic fan (or is it pessimistic) in me is simply being too picky. Nevertheless, if the team can find suitable scoring from the point position, even from their current roster, it'll propel their odds of winning the Stanley Cup from 9:1 to 1:1. That is, at least, in the heart of this hockey fan.