The core of the Pittsburgh Penguins' championship team remains mostly in place, but it's the uncertainty over the supporting cast that makes them an intriguing team to watch this season.
In four of his five NHL seasons, Sidney Crosby has surpassed 100 points and in the last three years has averaged between 1.34 and 1.36 points per game, so there is a certain elite level of production that sets Crosby apart from most others. He increased that separation last year, scoring a career-high 51 goals.
It may be difficult for him to score on 17.1% of his shots again (his career average is 14.8%), but Crosby's improvement as a finisher only enhances his value since there are few players in the league that can score 100 points and fewer still that can tally 50 goals.
One of the players in the league capable of hitting those milestones plays on Crosby's team. Evgeni Malkin has career-highs of 47 goals and 113 points, but is coming off a decidedly down season, scoring 77 points in 67 games in 2009-2010.
There has been a lot of talk about Malkin shifting to the wing this season, which would likely free him from some defensive responsibilities, so if he can find the right line combination, another 100-point season could be in the cards.
If Malkin is going to make a move to the wing, Jordan Staal will be required to move into the second-line centre role. In theory, it makes all kinds of sense and 22-year-old Staal is a three-time 20-goal scorer who has a superb all-around game, yet can still improve his offensive output.
The fly in the ointment is a lingering foot injury that has plagued Staal since the playoffs and could cause him to miss the start of the regular season. If healthy, the possibility of having Malkin skate on his wing could really bring a breakthrough for Staal.
Injuries limited hard-driving winger Chris Kunitz to 50 games last season, but he's compiled 50 points in 70 games with the Penguins since he was acquired from the Ducks and seems to be a decent complement to Crosby.
Kunitz seems like a safe bet for a top-six forward role because the Penguins are rather thin up front, in terms of scoring talent. Rookies like Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffery and Mark Letestu are among those being considered for regular jobs this season and certainly if any of them finds a place on a line with Crosby or Malkin, that will make them worth a look.
Late-summer signing Mike Comrie is another who could fit into the top-six mix. Though he's played more than 65 games once in the last four years, 30-year-old Comrie is a capable finisher who scored 13 goals in 43 games with the Oilers last season. If he's dropped onto Crosby's wing, in an ideal world, maybe 25-30 goals wouldn't be out of the question.
Perhaps my greatest concern with the Penguins, however, is the departure of Sergei Gonchar. Yes, he's getting on in years (36) and hasn't stayed healthy in recent seasons (missing 77 games over the last two years), but he's also a freak on the power play, scoring more than 30 power play points in six of the last seven seasons.
How could this affect the Penguins? Consider their power play with and without Gonchar last season. In the games that Gonchar played, Pittsburgh's power play was 49-for-243 (20.2%). In the games he missed, it was 7-for-83 (8.4%). Someone is going to have to make up for that loss on the power play.
A forearm injury limited defenceman Paul Martin to just 22 games with the Devils last season, but he had 11 points and was plus-10, so his smooth skating and puckhandling skills allowed him to be effective when he did play. Joining the Penguins could provide Martin an opportunity for his first 40-point season.
While Kris Letang managed only 27 points last season, it's worth noting that, in the last two playoffs combined, the 23-year-old has nine goals and 20 points in 36 games. The possibility of an increased role on the Penguins' power play gives Letang a chance for a breakout season.
Alex Goligoski put up 37 points in his first full-time NHL season last year and he does have the offensive inclinations to be a productive scorer and power play quarterback if given the opportunity.
Another question regarding the Penguins involves goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the 25-year-old that has seen his save percentage drop in each of the last two seasons, from a career-best .921 in 2007-2008 to .905 last year.
If Fleury isn't stopping pucks at something better than a league-average rate for starting goalies (around .910), then there is little margin for error for a team trying to mix in a few new blueliners and find a few scoring forwards up front.
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Depth Chart
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.