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Questions about Fleury, defense surround Penguins

by Corey Masisak

For much of the 2011-12 season, there was one question that dominated the discussion about the Pittsburgh Penguins: When will Sidney Crosby return?

Evgeni Malkin won League MVP honors, and James Neal was a revelation as his sidekick, but Crosby's health was an ongoing saga. His first return from an injury presumed to be a concussion was mythical, but soon after he was back on the sidelines.

The diagnosis of his injury came into question, and it seemed every accurate story about his rehabilitation process was flanked by nearly as many that weren't. The Penguins pressed on, and when Crosby returned a second time, everything seemed to fall into place for another run at the Stanley Cup.

That run lasted less than two weeks, as holes in a leaky defense were smashed open by the rival Philadelphia Flyers. Now it has been three years since the Cup returned to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins have exactly one postseason series victory since.

The loss to the Flyers and subsequent reaction this offseason has left some questions to answer, but the Penguins can be one of the top Cup contenders again in 2012-13. Here are the six most pressing questions:

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1. What happened to the defense?

There were warning signs before the Flyers put Pittsburgh to the sword with 30 goals in six games, including 20 as Philadelphia grabbed a 3-0 lead in the series. While the Penguins scored at least four goals in 12 of the final 15 regular-season games, they also yielded three or more eight times.

Marc-Andre Fleury had a nightmare series against the Flyers, but the guys in front of him deserved to share the blame. The Penguins left gaping swaths of open ice for the Flyers to exploit, and ill-timed turnovers exasperated the issue.

While fans filled the radio air waves in Pittsburgh calling for major changes to the defense corps, the only guy who isn't on the roster from last year at this point is Zbynek Michalek, who was traded to clear cap space for a run at Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Unless general manager Ray Shero can make another trade, the main protagonists on the defense will be the same, with the addition of a young player from within. It isn't just the defensemen, either -- the forwards have to show a renewed commitment to goal prevention as well.

2. Will Marc-Andre Fleury rebound?

Ilya Bryzgalov had a miserable first playoff series for the Flyers, yet his ignominy was easily overshadowed by the goalie at the other end of the ice. Fleury allowed 26 goals in essentially five-and-a-half games, producing a 4.63 goals-against average and .834 save percentage that wouldn't have cut it in the mid-1980s.

Fleury has had famous foul-ups before, but the way he lost "it" so suddenly was startling. The pressure to get off to a good start in 2012-13 will be immense. The addition of Tomas Vokoun as his backup should help lighten his workload, but if Fleury struggles like he did at the end of last season it could be a lot lighter than he wants it to be.

3. Who replaces Zbynek Michalek?

Michalek was dealt and Paul Martin's name was part of multiple trade rumors, but he is still with the Penguins. There are six defensemen currently on the roster on one-way contracts, though the Penguins probably don't want to start the season with exactly those six.

There are a bevy of young defensemen who will compete for at least one spot on the opening-night roster and maybe two, pending a decision to carry seven or eight rearguards. The obvious favorite is Simon Despres, who impressed in 18 games for Pittsburgh last season and could be ready for 18-20 minutes per night immediately.

Other candidates include summer additions Brian Dumoulin and Dylan Reese, top prospect Joe Morrow and "veterans" Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Sneep. 2012 first-rounders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta and 2011 second-rounder Scott Harrington -- who are all eligible to return to their Canadian junior teams -- are long shots.

If Shero were to trade for a veteran defenseman, expect a name or names from that group to be part of the package to get a deal done.

4. Who is the last forward among the top six?

Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are locks to be on one of Pittsburgh's top two forward lines with the current roster. Malkin, Neal and Kunitz were one of the top lines in the League last season, while Crosby and Dupuis have played together for a long time.

Kunitz was the third member of that line before Crosby's health problems, and it is possible he returns to the line. That would leave a spot open next to Malkin and Neal, who were both First Team All-Stars last season.

The top candidates are Matt Cooke (19 goals last season), Tyler Kennedy (11) and Eric Tangradi (0 in 24 games). Dustin Jeffrey and top forward prospect Beau Bennett are the dark horses, while Shero could continue to look for an outside option.

5. Can Evgeni Malkin go back-to-back?

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 50 | ASST: 59 | PTS: 109
SOG: 339 | +/-: 18
Malkin became the fourth player in team history to win the Hart Trophy as League MVP, scoring 50 goals and an NHL-best 109 points despite missing seven games. This was not Malkin's first time as the game's most dominant player (he was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2009), but it was a worthy reward after two years of production below his expectations because of injury or lessened effectiveness.

It must be noted that two of Malkin's three best finishes in the MVP race came in years when Crosby missed significant time (Malkin finished second in 2008, when Crosby missed time with a high ankle sprain, and 2009). He had no trouble continuing to produce at a world-class level once Crosby returned last season, but convincing voters that he is worthy of MVP honors if arguably one of the other top two centers in the League is also on his team could be tougher than a season ago.

6. Can Sidney Crosby stay healthy?

It was coming at some point. Crosby finished the regular season and playoffs without reporting any new or reoccurring health problems, but his ability to complete a full season will remain in question until he actually does it.

Crosby had eight goals and 37 points in 22 games, then added eight points in six playoff games. It is possible the worst is over for Crosby, and he'll resume being the sport's dominant player in 2012-13. It will also probably be quite a long time before Penguins fans (and management) don't hold their breath any time Crosby lingers on the ice after a collision.

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

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