Ray Shero knew he didn't have to open his checkbook to sign a big-money free agent this summer. Pittsburgh's general manager wasn't going to find anyone on the market better than the two players he already knew were working toward a return to the Penguins' lineup: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins played without both of their $8.7 million centers for the final 29 games last season and all of the playoffs. Crosby missed the final 41 games with a concussion and Malkin tore up his right knee on Feb. 4, putting him on the shelf for the remainder of the season as well.
Pittsburgh became more of a defense-oriented team and managed to finish second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference with 49 wins and 106 points. Dan Bylsma rightfully won the Jack Adams Award for skillfully guiding his depleted team to the finish line and now he believes his team is better for not having Crosby and Malkin at the season.
Interesting fact: The Penguins begin the 2011-12 season with a three-game road trip to Western Canada. This marks the first time the Penguins have opened the regular season with three straight road games since the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign when they visited Tampa Bay, Florida and the Rangers Jan. 20-25, 1995.
However, Malkin will be ready for training camp and Crosby is working toward a return either in training camp or soon after. Crosby reportedly began his normal summer workout routine in July, but he has not been cleared for contact yet and he has experienced some post-concussion symptoms when he pushes himself.
Malkin has spent the offseason in Russia, working out to strengthen his surgically repaired right knee.
Nevertheless, Shero did his due diligence in free agency by re-signing five of his own players and tempting Jaromir Jagr to return to Pittsburgh before moving on to sign veteran winger Steve Sullivan. It was all window dressing compared to what should be two enormous additions this season.
PENGUINS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. What will the return of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin mean to the Penguins? It will mean that Pittsburgh will be a very, very good team in 2011-12. The Penguins won 49 games last season and came within one point of winning the Atlantic Division -- playing a majority of the year without their two superstars. Imagine how good they'll be in 2011-12 with virtually the same roster and the return of the dynamic duo.
2. Are the Penguins better off without Jaromir Jagr? Fans will certainly have mixed answers on this one. Jagr is an elite goal scorer; but he hasn't played in the NHL since 2008, so it's tough to gauge how he'll perform in 2011-12. Either way, expect the atmosphere at Consol Energy Center on Dec. 29 to be pretty intense -- it's the Flyers' first trip to Pittsburgh.
3. Can Pittsburgh get over the playoff hump? The Penguins haven't been past the second round of the playoffs since they won the Stanley Cup in 2008-09. After being upset by Montreal two years ago in the Conference Semifinals, then blowing a lead to Tampa Bay in the Conference Quarterfinals last season, can the Penguins cure their playoff woes?
-- Emily Kaplan
The Penguins lost a couple of their more charismatic depth players to Atlantic Division rivals. Maxime Talbot signed a five-year contract to play in Philadelphia and Mike Rupp inked a three-year deal with the New York Rangers.
Talbot will best be remembered for scoring both goals in the Penguins' Cup-winning Game 7 victory at Joe Louis Arena in 2009 while Rupp will best be remembered for being a tenacious yet fun-loving teammate. Both also had starring roles in HBO's Emmy Award-winning documentary series "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic."
Most importantly, though, Talbot was a depth center who could win key faceoffs and help kill penalties for the Penguins. Rupp was a pugilistic fourth-liner who chipped in wherever it was needed.
Jagr was the one that got away, but the Penguins didn't idle as they moved on from their former star who signed with their in-state rivals. Shero found another veteran scoring winger with potential to play in Pittsburgh's top six, provided he stays healthy.
Sullivan, who signed a one-year contract, could find his way onto a line with either Crosby or Malkin depending on how he performs in training camp and if he develops chemistry with either superstar early in the season. Crosby, though, may not be in the lineup to start the season.
Sullivan, 37, should be, but he has had some injury woes. He was limited to 44 games last season with Nashville, but he had 22 points on a team that didn't have a bona fide No. 1 center or anybody with more than 23 goals or 50 points.
Williams has dealt with injuries in recent seasons, but he told the Penguins' website that he's healthy and ready to show what he can do. He has 225 points in 447 games in the NHL. MacIntyre could fill the enforcer role that Godard had in previous seasons with the Penguins. He had seven fights in just 34 games with the Oilers last season.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dustin Jeffrey, F -- Injuries gave Jeffrey a chance to show Bylsma and Co. what he can do last season. He tested out fairly well. Jeffrey had 12 points in 25 games, proving to the Penguins that there is upside in their former sixth-round draft pick. Jeffrey is coming off major knee surgery, but he says he will be ready for training camp. He signed a two-year contract this summer, but it's a two-way deal for this season.
Eric Tangradi, F -- A 22-year-old rookie, Tangradi is so focused on making the Penguins' opening night roster that on July 26 he told his nearly 13,000 Twitter followers that he was taking the year off from the social media site "to really focus on trying to make a hockey team." Tangradi, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, had three points in 15 games with the Penguins last season before suffering a season-ending concussion.
Mark Letestu, F -- The undrafted longshot from Elk Point, Alta., finally made it to the NHL on a full-time basis last season. Letestu was forced into a bigger role due to the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, and he finished with 27 points in 64 games. He could move to the wing this season or play in a fourth-line center role if Crosby, Malkin and Staal are all healthy.
Picard had eight points over 43 games with Montreal last season. He's also played for the Flyers, Lightning, Senators and Hurricanes and has 65 points over 236 games. Valabik spent all of last season in the AHL, but played 80 games over parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2007-10.
Pittsburgh stayed in the hunt for the Atlantic Division title during the second half of last season without Crosby and Malkin. That was not only remarkable, but it was telling of what this team is potentially capable of with their star centers healthy and in the lineup.
The fact is that the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and the following game at home against Tampa Bay were the only two times last season that Pittsburgh had its top three centers -- Crosby, Malkin and Staal -- start and finish the same game.
Staal missed the first 40 games of the season after undergoing offseason surgery and then fracturing his hand, but made his season debut at Heinz Field on Jan. 1. Crosby didn't play in another game after going pointless against the Lightning on Jan. 5. Malkin tore up his knee on Feb. 4 and was out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
The Penguins are built around these three players, so if the Stanley Cup is the goal -- as it is every year in Pittsburgh -- it's critical that all three stay in the lineup.
However, provided defenseman Brooks Orpik recovers from his July 20 sports hernia surgery in time, the Penguins should be entering training camp with a healthy and deep blue line.
With Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson back to make up one of the top goaltending duos in the NHL, the Penguins should be contenders again provided Nos. 87 and 71 make it back and they hang on to the defensive swagger they developed last season.