Despite losing their two best players to season-ending injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished with their highest point total since 1992-1993.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Penguins roster that should be primed to contend next season, if Sidney Crosby is healthy.
On his way to the best season of his career, Crosby couldn't shake a concussion and missed the last half of the season. The Penguins seem hopeful that Crosby will be ready to play when training camp rolls around again, but who knows? The fact that he's been on the shelf this long makes it impossible to say, with certainty, that he'll be back to 100 per cent in September.
That's obviously the hope, but there's no sense in bringing Crosby back at anything less than his best.
In addition to Crosby, the Penguins also were without Evgeni Malkin for most of the last three months after he suffered a knee injury. The encouraging news is that Malkin appears to be well on his way to recovery and knee injuries tend to be more predictable in their time frame, so it's easier to write Malkin's name on the lineup card in ink.
That the Penguins were a playoff team despite missing two of the game's greatest talents is a testament to head coach Dan Bylsma, who extracted just enough offence, tightened up team defence and had the good fortune to post a league-best 10-3 record in shootouts.
It also never hurts to get strong goaltending. After posting a team save percentage of .900 in 2009-2010, the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson stopped 91.7% of shots last season, with last summer's free agent additions, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, bolstering the blueline.
If the scoring stars return and the goaltending and defence remain strong, then the Penguins should be in good shape heading into 2011-2012.
That doesn't mean GM Ray Shero won't have a busy summer, however. Many of the Penguins' depth forwards are unrestricted free agents and not all will be able to fit under the salary cap, which will mean making hard choices that are likely driven by finances.
"I really don't have a sense for it," Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I don't know what the next three weeks will bring. I'm hopeful we'll sign a few of these guys."
But, in the grand scheme of things, if a team's big personnel concerns are in the third and fourth-line spots, those are the woes of contenders.
Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma
It's not like there is ever a good time for the 23-year-old face of the league to suffer a season-ending concussion, but Sidney Crosby was in the midst of the best season of his already-impressive career when he was sidelined.
Predicting a return from a concussion is a fool's game, because it sure looked like Crosby might have been close to returning just before the playoffs, but then he was shut down again. So, while it's optimistic to think that Crosby will be his same old self by the time training camp begins in September, that's no guarantee.
Obviously, Crosby's status will play a pivotal role in the Penguins' chances.
Losing Crosby was even more problematic because the Penguins then lost their other game-breaking forward, Evgeni Malkin, who suffered a torn ACL a few weeks later.
Malkin was struggling somewhat, scoring under a point-per-game for the first time in his career. He had also shifted to right wing, a move that made sense given his perennial struggles in the faceoff circle.
If the Penguins have Malkin and Crosby back in the lineup next season, they will be a vastly different team than the one that scrambled for goals in the first round against Tampa Bay.
For the fourth time in his career, Chris Kunitz topped 20 goals and for the fourth time he recorded a double-digit plus rating. The previously durable winger has now missed 48 games in the last two seasons, however, so his role as a complementary winger on a top scoring line is mitigated by the time he's missed with injuries.
Acquired from Dallas, James Neal was a flop with the Penguins, scoring one goal and six points in 20 games after the trade. He had good chemistry in Dallas with Brad Richards so Neal, a three-time 20-goal scorer, would figure to be a nice fit alongside a playmaking centre, say, like Crosby.
The notorious Matt Cooke is widely known for his questionable hits and he missed the last ten games of the regular season, as well as the first round of the playoffs, due to a suspension for a head hit delivered to Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh.
Lost in the constant barrage of cheap hits is the fact that Cooke is a very effective two-way winger. He's scored 30 point or more in each of the last three seasons and he's been a double-digit plus player in each of the last two seasons. Moreoever, Cooke played a career-high 15:38 per game last season.
Cooke says that he's going to change his approach going forward and he's good enough to play his role without crossing the line as often as he has in recent seasons.
Jordan Staal missed the first half of the season with foot and hand injuries, coming back just as Crosby left the lineup, givine Staal a lot of responsibility. He played a career-high 21:21 per game and, with 30 points, his points-per-game was at the highest rate of his career.
Staal has loads of experience for a 23-year-old and, in addition to taking on the tough checking assignments, should be counted on to handle the offensive responsibilities that come with being a second-line centre.
As a 26-year-old rookie Mark Letestu got off to a good start to the season, but faded some in the second half, partly due to a knee injury. While he played protected minutes, Letestu was effective, posting the second-best shot differential on the team (per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to www.behindthenet.ca) behind Malkin.
Craig Adams has scored four goals in 171 games since joining the Penguins, but the checking winger who led all Penguins forwards in penalty killing ice time earned a two-year contract extension.
No Penguin responded to an increased role better than Tyler Kennedy, who scored 14 goals in the last 30 games, when he was playing 17 minutes a night. After his career-high 21 goals and 45 points, it would seem reasonable to expect Kennedy to be able to play more of an offensive role, even when the Penguins are back to full strength.
Dusin Jeffrey didn't get a great deal of ice time, but with seven goals in 25 games after getting called up and before getting hurt, he showed enough that he should have a good chance to stick in Pittsburgh full-time next season.
The Penguins' forward ranks should look different, particularly further down the depth chart, next season. With eight unrestricted free agents, there will be some work to do to fill out the roster. Young players like Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi might take spots, but some veteran checkers will also have to find their way onto the roster.
Kris Letang enjoyed a breakthrough season in his fourth year in the NHL, setting new career marks with 50 points, a plus-15 rating and 24:02 time on ice per game.
Admittedly, though, Letang's production slipped steadily throughout the year, scoring 23 points in the first 26 games, 18 points in the next 24 games, then nine points in his final 32 games.
Though he played a limited part-time role, Ben Lovejoy was quite effective when he got into the lineup, going plus-11 in 47 games, making him one of seven defencemen to play fewer than 60 games and record a double-digit plus rating last season.
Hard-rock defenceman Brooks Orpik annually ranks among the league's leading hitters and his plus-39 rating over the last four seasons ranks 17th among NHL defencemen over that time.
Zbynek Michalek grew into a more significant role with the Penguins as the season progressed, even getting power play time in the latter stages of the year. He hasn't surpassed 20 points in three of the last four seasons, so maybe the power play time isn't an ideal use of his skills, but he's entirely capable of playing a top-four role and logging 22-23 minutes per game.
Smooth-skating Paul Martin played more than 23 minutes per game, yet managed a modest 24 points. While Martin doesn't contribute offensively as much as one might expect, he's a plus-60 over the last four years, good enough for seventh among NHL defencemen in that time frame.
Brought over from Dallas in the James Neal-Alex Goligoski deal, Matt Niskanen could use a fresh start, as his game has declined in the last two seasons. He did handle more playing time in Pittsburgh, but Niskanen has shown some offensive ability in the past, so he might be able to help on the power play.
Deryk Engelland didn't play big minutes, but he provided a physical presence, as both a hitter and a fighter. He's a good fit as a seventh defenceman.
If there is going to be an overhaul up front, at least the Penguins should be able to count on some continuity on defence, with seven pros already signed.
A big part of the reason that the Penguins made the playoffs, despite their injuries, was the strong goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. His 2.32 goals against average was the lowest of his career and his .918 save percentage was the second-best mark of his career.
Fleury has played in 194 games over the last three seasons, tied with Buffalo's Ryan Miller for fourth in the league over that time.
34-year-old Brent Johnson was outstanding in the backup role, his .922 save percentage a career-best. He's settled into playing 20-25 games per season and is one of the more reliable second-stringers in the league.
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||13-28-41,+29, 47 GP
||18-15-33,+9, 42 GP
||9-16-25,-5, 37 GP
||39-29-68,+4, 63 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||4-12-16,+17, 39 GP
||2-8-10,+22, 75 GP
||4-22-26,+28, 79 GP
||12-24-36,+17, 66 GP
||1.94 GAA, .922 SV%, 46 GP
||11-14-25,+17, 31 GP
A big, physical defenceman who skates well and has improving puck skills, Simon Despres may be ready to challenge for a spot in Pittsburgh after winning the Memorial Cup with Saint John last season.
He's not yet 20-years-old, so some time in the AHL wouldn't hurt and the Penguins are deep enough on defence right now that they might be able to afford that luxury.
Power forward Eric Tangradi got into 15 games with Pittsburgh last season, scoring three points, but he continued to develop his offensive game once he was sent back to the AHL.
The 22-year-old should be ready to challenge for a full-time job in Pittsburgh as soon as next season.
A first-round pick last summer, Beau Bennett is coming off a fine freshman season at the University of Denver, though he'll be better served with at least another year (or two) before looking to bring his offensive skills to the pros.
Drafted in the fourth round out of Germany last summer, Tom Kuehnhackl performed very well in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League, raising his game to an even higher level in the playoffs.
Philip Samuelsson, son of Ulf, has played well in two seasons at Boston College and projects to be a shutdown-style defender at the next level.
Brian Strait has a total of 24 points in his first two AHL seasons, so he's not going to be running the power play anytime soon, but he's also plus-44 through those two seasons.
Perhaps not as safe as Strait, Robert Bortuzzo has better size, a good shot and plays a more aggressive style and the 22-year-old has two full years in the AHL under his belt, so he could get a taste of NHL action soon.
After his first pro season was derailed by shoulder surgery, towering winger Keven Veilleux stayed relatively healthy last season and played with more edge to his game than he had shown in junior.
Undrafted, goaltender Robert Thiessen was signed as a free agent out of Northeastern University in 2009 and, despite his lack of ideal size, he's been able to stop the puck at every level, ranking second in the American Hockey League with a 1.94 goals against average last season.
After a strong freshman season at Yale, last summer's fifth-round pick, Kenny Agostino (not to be confused with Penguins prospect, and Cornell defenceman Nick D'Agostino) is on the radar as a prospect to watch.
Check out a possible roster for next season, on www.capgeek.com, with some re-signings and presumed good health, here: http://bit.ly/ioyWt1
23rd - Matt Puempel, Tomas Jurco, Scott Mayfield.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins have approximately $55.5M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: Depth forwards.
What I said the Penguins needed last year:Three top nine forwards, four defencemen.
They added: Mark Letestu, Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland.
TRADE MARKET Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Matt Niskanen.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
Off-Season Game Plan Archive