Even taking into consideration all of the questions that the Penguins face as they begin the regular season, the organization is in enviable shape. The team is moving into a new arena that will open considerable revenue streams for the franchise while inside the "house that Lemieux built" play Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the most dominant players in hockey, along with a young-yet-seasoned supporting cast.
Expectations for the season only start at the Eastern Conference semifinals, and it's hard to imagine that this team, even with the questions that remain, will not be amongst the conference's elite come March. Still, with Thursday's season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers quickly approaching, here are five story lines to follow:
1. Jordan Staal's injury woes. This offseason, rumors swirled of young center Jordan Staal hoping for a place on one of the Penguins' top two lines and management's apparent inclination to grant his request.
All of this has temporarily been rendered moot by a serious infection in Staal's right foot, the result of an accidental laceration via the skate of P.K. Subban, that has prevented Staal from engaging in workouts this preseason. It will be a while before Staal is 100 percent:
With no apparent timetable for his return, the Penguins are going to have to look at other options on the top two lines and solidify the team's solid penalty-killing unit during Staal's absence.
2. Wingers. A top story heading into every recent Penguins season has been the team's attempts to provide adequate support at wing on the top two lines for star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Exiting the organization this offseason were last season's prime disappointments, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky, as well as top-line mainstay Bill Guerin. Replacing them are Mike Comrie at a bargain-basement price, and, well, no one else, really.
Time was up for Guerin, Ponikarovsky and Fedotenko in Pittsburgh. Fedotenko's play had diminished greatly over the previous season, while age appeared to take its toll on Guerin. Ponikarovsky, on the other hand, never seemed to mesh while with the Penguins, and he showed only occasional flashes of brilliance.
With Chris Kunitz as the only winger guaranteed a top spot, it was expected that the Penguins would spend some time in the offseason plugging in the holes on their featured lines. However, with the signings of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin to significant contracts, there was little room to sign effective wingers.
The only incoming player with any possibility of providing a dose of offensive chutzpah to the Penguins is diminutive winger Mike Comrie. Comrie comes to the team following a disappointing return season in Edmonton last year, in which he managed to put up only 21 points during an injury-plagued 43-game season.
There is no doubt, however, that the talent is there, and for the $500,000 price, taking a risk on Comrie is a well-calculated move. However, relying on Comrie to be the guy to fill in is a bit of a gamble, and with Pascal Dupuis looking assured of a top-two line spot and no serious talent in the pipeline beyond the very green Eric Tangradi, depth on the top two lines will be an issue for much of the year, especially while Staal is sidelined.
3. The defense. An awkwardly-assembled defense that had begun to look a bit worn as last season ended received a serious shot of adrenaline this off season, as the offensively dynamic but aging Sergei Gonchar and the steady but brittle Mark Eaton were replaced by Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Martin and Michalek were signed at five years apiece for $5 million and $4 million, respectively.
The change should produce immediate dividends. The Sergei Gonchar seen at the end of last season and during the playoffs was a shadow of his once-potent self. His ability to quarterback the power play remained, but Gonchar's once-solid defensive game vanished along with any desire to play the body or get physical, especially against Montreal. Mark Eaton simply wasn't affordable once Michalek and Martin came in, as the 33-year-old received a raise to $2.5 million over two seasons when he signed with the New York Islanders. For his limited skill set, and age, that price tag may have been a bit high.
One reason for the signings of both Martin and Michalek was to make the young lineup even younger (Martin is 29, Michalek is 27) and more able in both ends of the rink. Martin can aptly man the point and contribute to a top penalty-killing unit, while Michalek is steady, assured on the puck and brings enough physicality to take some of the pressure off of Brooks Orpik.
On the other end of the defense, the battle for the sixth and seventh positions on the Penguins blue line has neared its conclusion with few answers found. Ben Lovejoy entered the preseason the odds-on favorite to snag the sixth spot on the blue line, but as my colleague Jimmy Rixner pointed out, has been mediocre thus far. Still, unless a another player is acquired in the next day or two, Lovejoy looks likely to hold onto that six spot.
A name on the lips of fans has been Simon Despres, the Penguins' top pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Most likely, though, Despres will see a few games of action, nine at most, for the Penguins before being sent down to his junior club, with Deryk Engelland taking a tenuous hold on the seventh spot.
4). A bounce-back year for Fleury? Although 2009-2010 wasn't a tremendous disappointment for Marc-Andre Fleury statistically, his play was very erratic. Fleury's save percentage has dipped over the past two seasons, going from a .921 in an injury-shortened 08-09 season to .912 in 08-9 and, finally, down to .907 last season. That's not a horrible number, but more disheartening is the fact that Fleury was pulled eight times in 66 starts last season, in comparison to four pulls in 61 starts the year before.
Now, with a revamped defense in front of him, Fleury will be expected to step up and prove himself to be a franchise goaltender. There is little question of Fleury's ability - he has won many games on his own and, when he's on, he's one of the top two or three goalies in the league.
When he's off? He's generally not fit to sit on the bench. And that's the worrisome thing. Fleury won't need to be in white-hot form most of the time. He only has to be good enough to instill confidence in the players in front of him and, basically, not lose most games. He's shown the ability to do that on a consistent basis before, and this year, it will be imperative that he returns to this standard once more.
5). Turnover behind the bench. The departure of newly minted Huston Aeros head coach Mike Yeo over the summer closed the book on the Michel Therrien era in Pittsburgh, the only remaining staff member from his tenure being longtime goaltending coach Gilles Melcohe.
Therrien's initial arrival in Pittsburgh served as something of a wake-up call to the young and old of the Penguins organization, a franchise known for promoting a "country club" environment. Therrien was a rigid disciplinarian and held players accountable, calling out ineffective members of the team in the press and in the locker room.
Once the team began aging with him, it turned into a good, disciplined group of players, overcoming the shortcomings of youth by buying into his system. The system eventually became stale, however, with an offensively-talented team just begging to be let loose. When Dan Bylsma was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and became the team's new head coach, an incredible marriage of convenience was entered.
Bylsma, an attack-minded coach, immediately opened the gates and implemented a relentless forechecking system. The Penguins sped up the tempo, and their offensive game flourished while, at the same time, retaining much of Therrien's teachings.
In 2009-2010, the team took a bit of a step back after a furious start. Statistically, the Penguins' numbers seemed relatively similar to the previous season's, but the product on the ice was a little sloppier, a little out of sorts. It was still very aggressive, but with a tendency for defensive breakdowns.
Not only did the team's discipline appear to fall by the wayside, but the power play, which read like a murderers row of offensive heavy hitters, could only manage to finish 19th in the league.
The power play was generally Yeo's responsibility. With Yeo gone, Bylsma and assistant coaches Todd Reirden and Tony Granato have a chance to start from scratch, to do a better job of utilizing Crosby and Malkin on the power play. Even with the loss of one of the game's premier quarterbacks in Sergei Gonchar, the power play should be much, much more effective than 19th in the league.