A year after winning the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins found out just how hard it is to repeat as champions.
Off-Season Game Plan examines the Penguins and what promises to be a busy summer for General Manager Ray Shero as, among other things, he has eight unrestricted free agents to deal with.
While a team with this high-end talent is never going to be far from contention, the Penguins can hardly afford to rest easy and assume everything will fall in place for another Stanley Cup run.
That doesn't necessarily mean trading Evgeni Malkin, as has been speculated -- then reportedly shot down by Penguins brass -- but it does mean taking a pro-active approach to renovating the roster and improving the supporting cast.
If the Penguins were to consider moving Malkin, it would only be for a major haul in return. There's no dealing one of the top three talents in the game for anything less, so the Penguins can at least see if other teams are willing to rise to the bait.
A scoring winger, a high-quality defenceman, a prospect, a pick; if there's a team that can put that kind of package together, and it makes sense for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, then the Penguins ought to at least consider the possibility.
Otherwise, the Penguins will have to get creative to address their needs. Scoring wingers are always required, but with four free agent defencemen, there are plenty of needs on the back end, too, and while the Penguins aren't yet jammed against the cap, it's not easy to find room for marquee additions given the current state of the team's salary structure.
"It certainly is time to lay the groundwork for next year, and we're starting to do that," Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, indicating that defenceman Sergei Gonchar and winger Matt Cooke are his top priorities as he tries to put together a roster that can get the Penguins back into the championship circle.
With the Penguins opening a new arena next season, the Consol Energy Center, there will be a lot of excitement around a team that has given fans a lot of reason to be excited in recent seasons.
Just how much excitement there will be going into next year will depend a lot on the moves that Shero makes this summer to re-stock the Penguins' roster.
Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma
There's not much left to accomplish for 22-year-old Sidney Crosby, as he's already won a Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold Medal, and he broke out as a goal-scorer in his fifth NHL season, scoring a career-high 51 goals, while taking a career-high 298 shots.
Crosby's outstanding season continued into the first round of the playoffs, when he was as dominant as ever in the first-round win over Ottawa. He was held in check when the Penguins were upended by the Canadiens in the second round of the postseason, a series in which his frustration boiled over at times.
Having led the league in slashing minors last season, Crosby is susceptible to the agitation of the opposition and that tactic only figures to continue, so he'll have to learn how to better deal with it.
Evgeni Malkin's production slipped, as his 77 points and minus-6 rating were the low marks of his first four seasons in the league. Injuries played a part, as he missed 15 games, due mostly to foot and shoulder problems, but the declining productivity was also a factor of inconsistent linemates.
Even the pair of wingers that played with him most often, Pascal Dupuis and Ruslan Fedotenko, weren't suited to match Malkin's skill level, so if the Penguins are going to bring out the best in Malkin, finding new options on his wings should be a priority.
Already one of the game's premier checking centres, 21-year-old Jordan Staal has scored at least 20 goals and 40 points in three of his four NHL seasons, while missing one regular season game in his first four years.
There does appear to be more offensive production lurking underneath the surface with Staal, but it's hard for him to get legitimate opportunities as long as Crosby and Malkin are ahead of him on the centre depth chart.
Injuries limited Chris Kunitz to 50 games last season but, when healthy, he's a solid complementary winger, capable of putting the puck in the net but, just as importantly being aggressive on the forecheck to create pressure in the offensive zone.
31-year-old Pascal Dupuis enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, with 18 goals, 38 points and a plus-5 rating all ranking as the second-best marks of his NHL tenure.
A checking winger with good speed, Dupuis has been cast on scoring lines, at times, almost by default.
Tyler Kennedy has shown some promise in his first three NHL seasons, but hasn't played more than 67 games and goes through some streaky stretches. He was very effective in a third-line role, with Staal, so that may be the level at which the 23-year-old settles, but he should be capable of a 20-goal season.
Brought in to provide size and toughness, Michael Rupp was a bonus offensive contributor, netting a career-high 13 goals; the first time since the lockout that he had more goals than fights.
He may be a Harvard grad, but Craig Adams is strictly blue-collar. Despite not scoring a goal all season, the 33-year-old still played in all 82 games for the Penguins.
A playoff hero in 2009, Maxime Talbot struggled through an injury-plagued season, managing just seven points in 45 games. Talbot is a high-energy character guy, but simply has to be better than he was last season.
Enforcer Eric Godard played only 4:11 per game last season, and dropped the gloves only eight times, but he's there to handle the heavyweights and can certainly hold his own with the game's top fighters.
The Penguins may see some turnover up front, especially if they can't lure Bill Guerin or Matt Cooke to return, but that's not the worst thing in the world -- this team needs an upgrade on the wings anyway.
Considering Pittsburgh's talented centres and the lure of playing for a prospective Stanley Cup contender, there may be an opportunity for the Penguins to land some proven veterans at reasonable prices.
Signing a couple of Ray Whitney, Paul Kariya, Maxim Afinogenov, Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Tanguay, Colby Armstrong or Owen Nolan would be a good start towards shaking up the Penguins' scoring units.
If Pittsburgh's wingers are due for a shake-up, there could be even more turnover on the blueline, with more than half of the group headed for unrestricted free agency, one year after the Penguins lost Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi as free agents.
Of the returnees, Alex Goligoski is the most offensively-accomplished, as he contributed 17 of his 37 points on the power play. The 24-year-old isn't can be exploited defensively, as he's not particularly big, but his mobility and puck skills make him a definite asset.
23-year-old Kris Letang has improved steadily in his three NHL seasons. While he only managed three goals in the regular season, Letang notched five in the playoffs and, moreover, handled more defensive responsibility, ranking second among Penguins' blueliners in ice time (21:34) while finishing with a plus rating for the first time in his career.
Pittsburgh's defence isn't the most physical group, to be sure, so Brooks Orpik definitely stands out; a robust, hard-hitting defensive defenceman, Orpik set a career-high with 25 points last season. He's the defensive backbone for this team.
While others on the Pittsburgh blueline should be replaceable, the Penguins could find it challenging to make up for the loss of Sergei Gonchar, should the 36-year-old depart as a free agent.
Gonchar has at least 30 power play points in four of his five seasons with the Penguins (and had 14 power play points in 25 games in 2008-2009), so if he leaves there is a sizeable hole to be filled.
Paul Martin or Dan Hamhuis might fill the defensive void, but neither figures to make up for Gonchar's power play presence. Some that could at least help on the power play, though admittedly have their own shortcomings otherwise, include: Joe Corvo, Pavel Kubina, Carlo Colaiacovo and Kurtis Foster.
Failing a free agent signing, the Penguins could look to trade and they'll still need some depth options. Farmhand Ben Lovejoy, who showed well in a 12-game audition with the Penguins last season, could at least fill a depth spot, while some free agents that might be appealing include Andy Sutton for his physical presence, along with Johnny Boychuk, Brett Clark or possibly, Ruslan Salei, solid performers that might be helpful if Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold head out of town.
After establishing his reputation with the Penguins' Stanley Cup win in 2009, Marc-Andre Fleury regressed last season, with his .905 save percentage his lowest since 2005-2006.
Fleury's only 25, so it's reasonable for the Penguins to expect a bounceback season from a starter who has handled a strong 129-game workload over the past two seasons.
Veteran Brent Johnson is a reliable backup goaltender. The 33-year-old has posted a save percentage between .905 and .908 in four of the last five seasons, starting at least 15 games in each.
||17-22-39,-1, 65 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||9-38-47,+26, 63 GP
||24-47-71,+16, 77 GP
||2-12-14,+22, 78 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||11-17-28,+9, 42 GP
||16-27-43,+19, 61 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||39-40-79,+46, 59 GP
||2-10-12,+13, 75 GP
||2-1-3,-1, 9 GP
||21-34-55,+21, 63 GP
Power forward prospect Eric Tangradi started to come on in the second half of his first pro season, as he recovered from off-season wrist surgery, and the 21-year-old has a chance to be a finisher for the Penguins' playmaking centres, but might need more time on the farm before he's ready.
18-year-old Simon Despres was drafted at the end of the first round last summer and he's continued to improve, scoring more in his third junior season, which is obviously a positive developmental sign for the big blueliner. Could he be ready for the NHL as soon as next season? That seems a lot to ask.
Dustin Jeffrey may be mild-mannered, but after scoring 71 points in 77 games, the big two-way winger has the credentials to earn a spot in the NHL. By shifting to the wing, Jeffrey should enhance his prospects of securing employment in Pittsburgh.
Mind-the-store defenceman Brian Strait doesn't do much offensively, but he led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with a plus-22 in his first pro season, so the 22-year-old may be ready to compete for a spot with the Penguins soon.
Coming off a national championship with Boston College, Carl Sneep has good size and showed a surprising offensive repertoire as a senior, scoring 11 goals after scoring six goals in his first three years with the Eagles. Some grooming in the AHL should have him ready to push for a spot quickly.
Steady winger Nick Johnson isn't going to be an overwhelming offensive force in the NHL, but the 24-year-old has good size, skates up and down his wing and earned a six-game cup of coffee with Pittsburgh last season.
After a couple of very productive junior seasons, in which he scored 76 goals and 169 points in 127 games, Nick Petersen is ready to ply his trade in the AHL, to see if his scoring exploits can translate to the next level.
Robert Bortuzzo is a big defensive blueliner who was a tough, physical presence in his first year pro. The 21-year-old could still use some time to round out his game before trying to move up.
A big and talented forward, Keven Veilleux missed most of his first pro campaign due to a shoulder injury and he had injury problems in junior as well, so the most important thing for the 20-year-old is to get into the lineup and play a full AHL season next year, proving that he can withstand the rigors of pro hockey.
There are a few minor league vets who may get a chance in Pittsburgh next season, including defenceman Ben Lovejoy and centre Mark Letestu. Undrafted, 24-year-old Letestu has worked his way up and played ten regular season and four playoff games with the Penguins last season.
Additionally, defenceman Alex Grant and goaltender Brad Thiessen are worth keeping an eye on in the minors, while Philip Samuelsson will continue to progress at Boston College.
20th - Quinton Howden, Mark Pysyk, Jarred Tinordi.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins have approximately $45.1M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, four defencemen.
What I said the Penguins needed last year: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen.
Who did they add? Mike Rupp, Jay McKee, Alex Goligoski, Martin Skoula, Brent Johnson.
TRADE MARKET Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen