From now through the start of the NHL season on Oct. 4, TSN.ca presents '30 Teams In 30 Days,' a quick glimpse at each NHL club as the 2008-09 campaign approaches. Get the lowdown on every lineup, storylines to follow and Scott Cullen's fantasy analysis. It continues today with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins' ascension to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League appeared inevitable, but few anticipated it occurring this quickly. Thanks to a run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the bar has been set extremely high for this young team.
With Sidney Crosby coming off a Hart Trophy-winning campaign, Michel Therrien capturing coach of the year honours and Evgeni Malkin getting the nod as rookie of the year, expectations were high for the 2007-08 season. The team added some veteran leadership in the form of Petr Sykora and Darryl Sydor, a pair of players with three Stanley Cup rings between them. They also took care of the future of the franchise by signing Crosby to a five-year deal with a slight hometown discount.
Despite a great deal of optimism, the Pens were very mediocre to start the season, struggling around the .500 mark into December.
Interestingly enough, the turning point appeared to be when No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury went down to an ankle injury, leaving the duties to Ty Conklin and Dany Sabourin. Instead of crumbling, the team rallied and went on a tear, winning eight straight games in late December and early January. Included in that stretch was a shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres on New Years Day in the Winter Classic.
Everything appeared to be going fine until Crosby badly sprained his ankle in a 3-0 loss to the Lightning. Many predicted the Penguins to go into the tank without their best player, but what could have very easily been their death rattle turned in to a blessing in disguise.
With Crosby out, the entire team raised the level of their game - none more so than Evgeni Malkin, who put the team on his broad shoulders. After scoring only 15 goals through the first three months of the campaign, Geno exploded for 32 goals in the final three months of the season. Riding shotgun to Malkin, Ryan Malone also enjoyed a breakout campaign, setting career highs in goals, assists, plus/minus and penalty minutes.
The team then made a huge splash at the trade deadline by landing Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from the Thrashers for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round draft pick. By the time Crosby and Fleury returned to the mix, the Pens were a well oiled machine, firing on all cylinders and capturing their first division title since the 1997-98 season.
Full of confidence entering the playoffs, the Pens ran roughshod over the Ottawa Senators; took out the New York Rangers and eliminated their cross-state rival the Philadelphia Flyers.
But there was no storybook ending for the Penguins against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. The team was to stretch out the series to six games, but it was apparent that the Wings were the better team. While the loss may have been heartbreaking, what the Penguins were able to achieve throughout the season was quite remarkable.
General Manager: Ray Shero (3rd season)
Head Coach: Michel Therrien (4th season)
2007-08 Record: 47-27-8 (2nd in Conference)
Points Leader: Evgeni Malkin -106
Goals Leader: Evgeni Malkin - 47
Assists Leader: Evgeni Malkin - 59
PIM Leader: Georges Laraque - 141
Plus/Minus Leader: Sidney Crosby - 18
PP Goals Leader: Evgeni Malkin - 17
SH Goals Leader: Ryan Malone - 2
What they did: The Penguins ensured that their core would be around for a long time as they signed Malkin, Fleury and rugged rearguard Brooks Orpik to multi-year extensions. The team also secured head coach Therien's services for another three years. They also took a dip into the free-agent pool picking up a pair of new wingers for Crosby in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, along with agitator Matt Cooke. But the team's success meant that they were unable to keep several key pieces. The Pens were hurt deeply by Hossa spurning their multi-year offer and taking a one-year deal for less money with the team that eliminated them from the finals - the Red Wings. Conklin also defected to the Wings after a career year to back up Chris Osgood. The Tampa Bay Lightning - backed by an ambitious new ownership group - decided to set up a Penguins-South franchise, acquiring the rights to Malone and Gary Roberts and signing Adam Hall. The team also lost Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu to the Canadiens and Senators respectively.
What to watch for: The question on the minds of many people is whether or not the Pens can overcome the hangover that seems to affect every team that loses the Stanley Cup. Though it is extremely unlikely that the Pens will miss the playoffs altogether, could an Ottawa Senators-type drop from last season be in the cards? A full season of Crosby and Malkin should ensure that the Penguins will be competitive, but the secondary scoring and depth of the forwards took a big hit with the loss of no fewer than five regulars. The Penguins are hoping for Jordan Staal to rebound after the dreaded sophomore slump grabbed a hold of him early in the season and refused to let go. The talented two-way forward saw his goal production drop from 29 in his rookie season to just 12 last year. There has been talk of shifting him to the wing on one of the top two lines in an attempt to jumpstart his offensive numbers.
Pittsburgh also took a chance by signing both Satan and Fedotenko away from the Islanders. Neither enjoyed particularly good seasons, but neither player skated on a line with Crosby, either. That fact alone should be good enough for a major jump in production.
The newly signed Matt Cooke should provide the aggravation to opponents lost when Ruutu moved to Ottawa, but the team may miss Laraque more than they would like to admit. Eric Godard will replace Big Georges' penalty minutes but the does not have the same presence in the locker room nor does he have Laraque's ability to take a regular shift without taking a bad penalty.
The Pens' blueline took a significant hit when they discovered that Ryan Whitney would need surgery to repair a chronic foot injury, sidelining the promising defenceman and power play quarterback until at least January. The injury to Whitney means that the Pens will be depending more than they would like on greenhorns such as Kris Letang and rookie prospect Alex Goligoski, who have a combined 66 NHL games between them. Softening the blow a little is the presence of Sergei Gonchar, but he injured his shoulder over the weekend and could miss time. Gonchar worked significantly on his play in his own end and is considered one of the top two-way threats from the back-end in the entire league.
Players and management all breathed a sigh of relief when Orpik agreed to a six-year extension with the team. The bruising rear guard was a revelation for the Penguins in their run to the Final, leading the league in post-season hits and blocked shots. Sydor, Hal Gill and Mark Eaton will all add veteran experience.
Between the pipes, this could be the year that Marc-Andre Fleury elevates his status to the upper-echelon of starting goaltenders in the league. Fleury's game is all about confidence and a deep run in the playoffs should give him the tools he needs mentally to be among the league's best this season. The Pens will no longer have Conklin to lean on if Fleury gets injured or struggles. Sabourin will serve as backup, but if Fleury develops the way the team hopes it will be very unlikely that Sabourin starts in the 24 games he did last season.
Parting Shot: Thanks to a young, exciting team and an extended playoff run, the Penguins were able to shift the focus in Pittsburgh away from the Steelers for a couple of months. For the first time since the glory years of Lemieux and Jagr, hockey is a big deal in the Steel City once again. But with that excitement come a lot of expectations. The fans want the team to win now and management believes they have assembled a lineup good enough to capture the Cup. If they are able to do so they would be the first team since the 1982-83 Edmonton Oilers to accomplish the feat after losing in the Final the year before.
Scott Cullen's Fantasy Analysis: As long as the Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they will be one of the most appealing teams in fantasy hockey. More.