The Pittsburgh Penguins
know they can be a Stanley Cup-winning team with Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
in their lineup. They know they can be a very good team without both of them for half a season.
However, the Penguins don't aspire merely to be good -- they expect to be champions. They've averaged 47 wins the last five seasons, played in two Stanley Cup Finals and won one -- yet a number of their core players are 25 or younger. They don't plan on being one-hit wonders; this is a team that goes into every season anticipating it will play until June.
"I think pretty much every year that's our goal," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
said. "To get to the Final and win. Nothing has changed this year. I think with the group of guys that we have this year, it's something that we can accomplish."
The Penguins looked to be a Cup-worthy team last season, assembling a 12-game winning streak before injuries to Crosby (concussion in early January) and Malkin (torn right knee ligaments in early February) cost them their two elite players. They already had played the first half of the season without center Jordan Staal
(foot, hand). Despite all the injuries, their depth, resiliency and Jack Adams
Award-winning coach Dan Bylsma
's craftiness and creativity enabled them to finish with 106 points, the second-best in franchise history.
Losing so much star power finally caught up to the Penguins in the postseason, as they squandered a 3-1 series lead for only the second time in team history and lost 1-0 to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The early ouster left them wondering how their season would have gone had they not been without Crosby, who had a substantial lead in the scoring race when he was hurt, and Malkin, a former Art Ross
The Penguins don't want to end this season wondering what might have been.
While they don't know exactly when the 24-year-old Crosby will make his season's debut as he continues to recover, Malkin is healthy and motivated, and talking of producing like he did during his 113-point season in 2008-09. There might be more lineup depth than at any time since the early 1990s. And a team that once cared more about scoring goals than preventing them has transformed itself into one that can win with offense or defense.
Before getting hurt, Crosby (66 points in 41 games) was on pace for the highest point total by an NHL player since 1995-96. Crosby doesn't know how long it will take him to return to playing at such a level once he gets back.
"I want to get back there, and understand that it might take some time," he said. "With that being said, that's where I want to be."
It's where Malkin wants to be, too.
Disappointed at averaging below a point per game for the first time in his career last season, he put in his most strenuous offseason to date while recovering from knee surgery. The 25-year-old reported to training camp in the best shape of his career and in no mood to repeat last season.
"I'm going to play at the same level I played at three seasons before," he said.
The return of Crosby and Malkin should help a power play that converted at only a 15.8-percent rate, ranking 25th in the League during the regular season, and went 1-for-35 against Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
Alexandre Picard, D (free agent, Canadiens); Steve Sullivan
, LW (free agent, Predators); Boris Valabik
, D (free agent, Bruins); Jason Williams
, C (free agent, Stars)
OUT: Mike Comrie
, C (free agent); Chris Connor, RW (free agent, Red Wings); Eric Godard
, RW (free agent, Stars); Alex Kovalev
, RW (free agent, Atlant Mystichi, Russia); Mike Rupp
, C (free agent, Rangers); Brett Sterling
, LW (free agent, Blues); Maxime Talbot
, C (free agent, Flyers)
Staal, 23, hasn't produced more than 22 goals since his breakout 29-goal season as a rookie in 2006-07, and the Penguins are eager to see him score in the high 20s again.
Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero
have long sought a capable scorer to play alongside Crosby or Malkin, and James Neal
could be that player. He had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas, but scored just once in 20 games after arriving in Pittsburgh.
Forced to improvise offensively without two former scoring champions, Pittsburgh got productive seasons from Chris Kunitz
(23 goals) and Tyler Kennedy
, who's career-best 21 goals earned him a new two-year contract. Pascal Dupuis
had four of the team's 13 short-handed goals while scoring 17 goals himself, and with Matt Cooke
and Craig Adams
, was invaluable on the NHL's best penalty-killing unit (86.1 percent). It was the first time Pittsburgh's man-down unit has led the League.
But the Penguins were without Cooke after March 20 because of a suspension for elbowing the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh
in the head. A renowned agitator, Cooke is vowing to reform his game and avoid suspendable hits.
"He can still be an aggressive player and play his game," Bylsma said.
Forwards Maxime Talbot
(Flyers) and Mike Rupp
(Rangers) signed elsewhere -- Penguins fans must adjust to the sight of both Talbot and Jaromir Jagr
in orange and black with Philadelphia -- but the reacquired Richard Park
could slide into Talbot's irritating-to-oppose role. And 37-year-old Steve Sullivan
will add a veteran's steadying presence if he stays healthy; he's ticketed to play alongside Malkin and Kennedy on the second line.
This could be the season that prospects Dustin Jeffrey
and Eric Tangradi
stick, but Mark Letestu
(14 goals in 64 games) will be tough to beat out. The 250-pound Steve MacIntyre
assumes Eric Godard
's tough-guy role.
PENGUINS 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
The Penguins made over their defense last season by signing Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
to big contracts, and after both went through a transition period, were rewarded with the NHL's seventh-best goals-against average (2.39).
"It's like night and day this season," Martin said, referring to his comfort level with Bylsma's system.
There's not much drop-off when the puck-moving Kris Letang
(42 assists) and shut-down specialist Brooks Orpik
are on the ice; Orpik's size, toughness and competitiveness allow Letang to take the offensive gambles that many defensemen wouldn't attempt.
Orpik, who had surgery for a sports hernia in July, had 194 hits as the Penguins finished third in the League with 2,280. Letang easily led the Penguins in ice time, and if it hadn't been for a second-half slump, he might have picked up more Norris Trophy support. Michalek (149) and Martin (129) were 1-2 on the team in blocked shots.
This is such a deep unit that top prospect Simon Despres
, who almost made the club last season, was one of the first training camp cuts, while 18-year-old Joseph Morrow
, a 2011 first-round draft pick, was a standout in camp but likely won't make the opening-day roster. Matt Niskanen
, acquired from Dallas in the Neal trade, Deryk Engelland
and Ben Lovejoy
provide the kind of depth a team needs to play into the postseason.
Until Crosby was hurt, he unquestionably was the Penguins' MVP; afterward, it was Fleury. Bouncing back from an uneven regular season and poor playoff series against Montreal in 2009-10, Fleury had a 2.16 goals-against average in his final 56 starts and won 36 times on a team that had 49 wins, second only to Vancouver's 54.
Fleury broke into the league eight years ago but only is 26, and the Penguins expect him to remain an elite goalie for the long term. His backup is the capable Brent Johnson
, whose 13-5-3 record helped the Penguins go 24-8-8 in one-goal games. And if another netminder is needed, Brad Thiessen
was 35-8-1 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, winning the AHL goalie of the year award.
Encouraged by his strong play and the likelihood Crosby will be back, Fleury said, "We want to get the Cup again."