After assembling the most talented roster in the NHL, one of the few questions left for the Pittsburgh Penguins before the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs was their goaltending.
For a second straight season, Marc-Andre Fleury struggled. This time, the Penguins had a viable Plan B, and Tomas Vokoun helped the team into the Eastern Conference Final. At that point, goaltending was far from the biggest question; the prolific Pittsburgh offense disappeared in a four-game sweep by the Boston Bruins.
The Penguins remain loaded with offensive firepower. During the offseason they strengthened their ability to defend. Fleury and Vokoun are back, so much of the critical focus will be on the person who needs to play better in the postseason to remain a franchise goaltender.
"It is kind of a little bit comparable to the Matt Cooke situation a few years ago when everybody said to get rid of Matt Cooke," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "He's this, he's that. We tried to work with him and he wanted to change. He took the proper steps, and I really believe Matt Cooke has become a productive, valuable player in the National Hockey League. You give him that opportunity and try to work with him. The question with Marc-Andre is certainly going to be at the end of the day to answer with his play."
Here is the requisite inquiry about Pittsburgh's goaltending, plus five other questions the Penguins will need to answer if they want to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in five seasons:
1. Which way does Marc-Andre Fleury go at the crossroads of his career? -- Want a crazy stat? Fleury turned 28 years old last season and has won 249 NHL games in the regular season. Martin Brodeur, the all-time leader in the category, turned 28 during the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had 242 regular-season victories to that point.
The issue for Fleury has been the playoffs. Since winning the Cup in 2009, Fleury has four straight postseasons with a save percentage below .900, including a .834 two years ago and .883 in five games during the 2013 playoffs.
Instead of finding the quickest means of parting with Fleury, the Penguins will try to find the player who produced a .933 save percentage during the 2008 playoffs and stonewalled the Detroit Red Wings in Games 6 and 7 of the 2009 Final.
"With a guy like Fleury, my decision to stick with him is, No. 1, it is really hard to find goaltending, so to just say get rid of him or buy him out, well, OK, that's a reaction, but who do I replace him with?" Shero said. "At 28 years old, there's not a goalie in the League who's won more games than him the last four years, the last three years, the last two years. He's won more games than anybody. You've got to win games to get to the playoffs.
"For Marc, it is about taking the necessary steps to improve his game. He is coming to an important part of his career. There's no doubt about it. In terms of trying to help and make him as good as he can be, there are still some parts of his game that he can improve upon and focus on. Those are things that we're going to continue to work on with him. He's serious about trying to improve his game, and he's got to do that."
Fleury will have a new goaltending coach in 2013-14 with Mike Bales replacing Gilles Meloche. After losing defensive defenseman Rob Scuderi four years ago, the Penguins finally filled that hole … by re-signing Scuderi.
There is going to be plenty of focus on the player nicknamed "Flower." After this season, there is one remaining on his contract. That would make him easier to trade or buy out if he can't find his previous form. It also would mean he can negotiate an extension if he can revive his status an upper-tier player.
"Marc-Andre wasn't the guy who finished for us, so that's why [the media] are asking the questions," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We think going into this season Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be a guy like the last year and two years and three years that is going to win a lot of hockey games. He's going to win 38, 39, 40, 41 games for us this year. There is no question about that. That is what I believe. That's what we expect him to be able to do for us. Tomas is going to go in and help us as well. We're not going to have to play Marc-Andre 70 games. We're going to have Tomas to play big games for us as well.
"The question being asked of me is about the playoffs next year, because I know what is going to happen during the regular season. That is something Marc-Andre is addressing this summer, addressing right now in his game, and going into this season that is not just something we're going to talk about and address in April. We're going through that right now with Marc and that's going to start -- it has already started -- and will continue into training camp and throughout the year."
2. How will the new-look third line shake out, and can the depth forwards be better? -- Cooke and Tyler Kennedy are gone to the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks, respectively. They had been part of the team's third line for much of the past five seasons, and when Jordan Staal was between them it was considered one of the best third units in the League.
Brandon Sutter is, barring injuries, certain to center this line. His wings could be decided during training camp. Jussi Jokinen could be one. He played well in place of injured Sidney Crosby after arriving from the Carolina Hurricanes, and Jokinen is a versatile player.
Dustin Jeffrey could be one. He's been in and out of the lineup the past couple of seasons. One of the team's low-cost free-agent signings could be one, with Matt D'Agostini the most likely to claim a spot. A young forward who is the subject of the next question could also land here.
"We have Brandon Sutter. We have Jussi Jokinen," Bylsma said. "Those two guys are going to fill prominent roles for us. Then we have the ninth forward, 10th forward, 11th forward; I don't want to say they're up for grabs, but that is a competitive spot on our team. That could be a left wing, it could be a right wing and it could be a young player. It could be D'Agostini. He’s got some skill and has had some good years in the League."
3. Who is the sixth among the top six forwards? -- The top five forwards are set, and the sixth likely will play on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Second-year forward Beau Bennett, who just misses the cutoff to remain a rookie after appearing in 26 NHL games in 2012-13, will enter training camp as the favorite to earn this coveted spot.
"It is certainly going to be that way in training camp," Bylsma said. "We have a few other possibilities, but Beau is a guy who I really took to as a player that could have an extremely good year. He’s got high hockey IQ, high hockey sense on the offensive side of the puck. He can really make plays."
4. Where does Simon Despres fit on the defense corps? -- Despres was a first-round pick (No. 30) in the 2009 NHL Draft, and he's always been at the head of Pittsburgh's group of defense prospects the past few seasons. He played in 33 games for the Penguins in 2012-13, and three playoff games.
This likely will be Despres' first full season in the NHL. He could end up playing with Kris Letang on the team's top pairing, or he could fit on the third pair with Matt Niskanen. The talent and potential is there, but the same can be said for a couple of the prized prospects who aren't far from challenging for a spot in Pittsburgh's top six.
"Simon has gone through the learning process the last couple of years for what it means to play defense and be a sound and consistent defender," Bylsma said. "He's big and can skate and defend and play physically. He has the ability with the puck to make a play, make the first pass. Simon has a lot of things that he can add. I think he's learned the consistency part and what it means to be a defender in this League. He's more than capable of stepping in and helping our team in whatever role that is."
5. Who will take on a greater role on the penalty kill? -- Cooke had been one of the team's go-to penalty killers for years. He was second on the Penguins in average ice time shorthanded among forwards last season. Douglas Murray also saw plenty of penalty-kill action after arriving in a trade, earning the fourth-most ice time per game shorthanded among the defensemen.
Rob Scuderi is an obvious candidate on the back end to consume shorthanded minutes. Jokinen has been a contributor on the penalty kill in the past with the Hurricanes. Joe Vitale also is a candidate to earn more important minutes while centering the fourth line.
6. Will the Penguins remember how to score goals again? -- Yes.
OK, to expand on that a little: sample size, sample size, sample size. The Penguins scored goals by the bushel during the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Making decisions or assumptions about the offense after a four-game slump is a mistake.
Pittsburgh will be among the most potent offensive teams in the League again in 2013-14. Preventing goals, and particularly the play of the goaltenders, will determine how successful the Penguins can be.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
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