NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a prohibitive favorite to win the Stanley Cup as each of the past two postseasons began.
They did not win, and the different but equally stunning ways they were ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012 and 2013 has left lingering questions about the prospects for the Penguins in 2013-14.
Pittsburgh is certainly expected to be among the top teams in the League during the regular season, though what happens in net could determine if the Penguins challenge for a division title and a Presidents' Trophy. The failures of the past two postseasons though could make people stop short of considering the Penguins a favorite to claim the Stanley Cup.
Whether it was poor defense and goaltending in 2012, an offensive outage against the Boston Bruins in 2013 or the questions about Marc-Andre Fleury from both postseasons, the Penguins have plenty to prove this season though some of the answers won't come into play until the spring.
The top five forwards on the Penguins are the best top five in the League, but the team has to figure out who will supplement them and how to do a better job of that than last season.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis combined for 87 goals and 211 points despite Crosby missing 12 games and Malkin 17. Kunitz and Dupuis will flank Crosby again this season, and either Beau Bennett or Jussi Jokinen will join Malkin and Neal on the second line.
Jokinen had seven goals and 11 points in 10 games after arriving in a trade from Carolina, spending much of that time as Crosby's replacement on the top line. He could spend time at any of the three forward positions and on any of the top three lines this season.
"Jussi is a guy who has played with some very good players in his career and done well with them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He could help us by playing with a guy like Crosby, and he’s definitely in the mix to be on that third line."
Either Jokinen or Bennett will slot next Brandon Sutter on the third line, and the third guy with that group could be Dustin Jeffrey, Matt D'Agostini or Chuck Kobasew, who is in camp on a tryout contract.
"You round out our team with Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass and Craig Adams," Bylsma said. "They are guys who play specific roles on our team. I really think for “Joey V” it is time for him to step up and really take a role on our team penalty-killing wise, faceoff wise. He’s a guy who plays with so much speed and tenacity. He’s going to be a factor on the third and fourth lines."
Kris Letang was a Norris Trophy finalist last season despite missing 13 games. His 38 points were tied for the most among defensemen in 2012-13. Letang is questionable for the start of the season because of a lower-body injury, but 80 points (only Nicklas Lidstrom has reached 80 points among defensemen since 1995-96) is not out of the question if he can stay healthy.
Letang's partner is likely to be the team's marquee offseason addition, Rob Scuderi. The veteran defensive defenseman left the team after winning the Cup in 2009, but returned after four years and another championship with the Los Angeles Kings.
"Rob did a great job in L.A.," general manager Ray Shero said. "He won a Cup out there. He proved again to be a real, good solid player. We know his character and leadership abilities in a quiet, unassuming way. We know Rob, and we were excited to have the opportunity to bring him back."
Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are expected to be the team's second pairing again. Martin had a much better season in 2012-13 after struggling at times since arriving from New Jersey as a free agent. Both Martin and Orpik are candidates to make the United States Olympic team.
Who plays on the third pairing is a little tricky. Matt Niskanen is certainly this team's fifth-best defenseman, but the Penguins are also in a tight squeeze with the salary cap and he could be moved. Top prospects Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot have been impressive, but could both end up back with their junior teams.
Robert Bortuzzo does not have the pedigree of some of the other younger defensemen, but he's had a strong camp and could see regular playing time. Simon Despres is in danger of being sent to the AHL. Deryk Engelland will either be the sixth or seventh guy depending on the fate of the others mentioned here.
Both Shero and Bylsma expressed their faith in Marc-Andre Fleury after Tomas Vokoun replaced him during the 2013 playoffs. Now that Vokoun is out indefinitely because of a blood clot, the Penguins are going to lean on Fleury to be a workhorse again.
Fleury's regular-season numbers in the past few seasons are strong, but he's had well-documented problems in the postseason. The Penguins will score plenty of goals, and Scuderi should help improve the defense corps. So there's going to be plenty of pressure on Fleury to perform, even though he's unlikely to convince any of his critics anything until the playoffs.
"When people evaluate Marc-Andre Fleury, it is not so much the regular season as it is the playoffs," Shero said. "He’s got to put himself in a position to get the net in the playoffs and dispel those notions. It is going to be up to him."
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