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Cullen: Penguins could be at full power in short order

Scott Cullen
9/20/2011 11:33:46 AM
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Considering that the Pittsburgh Penguins earned home ice in the first round of playoffs last season while playing half the year without their two best players, there seems to be an opportunity for a special season if those stars are at least relatively healty this season.

There has been all kinds of skepticism and conjecture about Sidney Crosby's health and there is no way of knowing for sure when he'll be ready to play, even more than eight months after suffering a concussion, but the indication that he's been cleared for practice, albeit non-contact, at the opening of training camp has to be considered an encouraing sign. Maybe it's asking too much to expect Crosby to play a full slate of games, but I projected (ie. guessed) Crosby would play 55 games and I'm already thinking that may be on the low end of the spectrum.

Once Crosby returns, there is still the issue of whether he will be the same dominant player he was before he suffered his concussion. When he left the Penguins' lineup last year, Crosby was the league's leading scorer and, quite clearly, at the top of his game, with his 1.61 points per game the best scoring rate of his career. It's entirely possible that Crosby won't be at that level, but he ought to still be an elite performer. When it comes to drafting Crosby, anything after the first round seems fair game and a late first-rounder, especially in a deep league, is probably defensible.

Even before he got hurt last season, Evgeni Malkin was going through the least productive season of his NHL career, putting up 37 points in 43 games. The two-time 100-point scorer is still capable of returning to that level if he's healthy and finds chemistry with his linemates.

Perhaps a surprise to be considered an elite performer, defenceman Kris Letang was the only defenceman in the league to have 50 points, 100 penalty minutes and a double-digit plus rating last season. That kind of productivity, across the board, ranks him among the best at the position.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has had ups-and-downs throughout his career, but last year's 2.32 goals against average was a career-best and his .918 save percentage was the second-best mark of his career. Fleury has won at least 35 games in each of the last three seasons and, if Crosby and Malkin are playing more this season, it would stand to reason that Fleury has a better shot to win even more this season.

Though he's had trouble staying healthy recently, missing 48 games over the last two seasons, Chris Kunitz has been a productive winger, even when Crosby was out of the lineup. For example, after the All-Star break last season, Kunitz had seven goals and 15 points in 18 games, so he ought to be productive no matter which line he ends up with this season; he just needs to stay in the lineup.

After he was acquired from the Dallas Stars last season, James Neal managed just one goal in 20 games for the Penguins. The 24-year-old has scored at least 20 goals in each of his three NHL seasons, but if he ends up on Crosby's wing (and Crosby is healthy), expectations will be decidedly higher, with 30 or possibly even 40 goals considered in play.

Though he missed the first half of the 2010-2011 season, Jordan Staal ultimately put up 30 points in 42 games, his highest points-per-game of his career. With the possibility of Malkin spending more time on the wing, Staal could play in a more offensive role as the Penguins' second-line centre and should be able to hit 50 points for the first time in his career.

37-year-old Steve Sullivan is skilled but a significant injury risk. He played all 82 games in 2009-2010, but that's the only season since 2003-2004 that he's played more than 70 games. The opportunity to skate on Crosby's wing does make Sullivan a bit of a darkhorse to put up good numbers, but he's going to be tough to draft unless there is room to stash him on the bench and, eventually, IR.

When injuries decimated the Penguins' lineup last year, Tyler Kennedy rose to the occasion, tallying 14 goals and 23 points in 31 games. That production suggests that Kennedy could fit in a top six role, at least in a pinch, but he may be set as a third-liner when everyone is healthy.

Matt Cooke's season was ended prematurely by suspension last year and he's vowed to be a more responsible player going forward. If that means fewer penalties, that would hurt Cooke's fantasy value (this is where fantasy and reality values take divergent paths) because he's the only player in the league to have at least 30 points, 100 penalty minutes and a double-digit plus rating in each of the last two seasons. If his penalty totals drop, he's suddenly not such a useful deep league addition.

The appeal of the Penguins is going to depend largely on the health of Crosby and Malkin which is only natural -- they're the ones that drive the offence -- and, from the tenor of matters involving those two, there is reason for the Penguins to be optimistic and that means good things for the supporting cast as a result.

Depth Chart - Pittsburgh Penguins

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 Sports on Facebook.



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