2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins Preview: A Tougher New Image
Shero's father, of course, was the legendary Fred Shero, a coach that wanted team toughness, and the man behind the bench for the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-1970s when they were the Broad Street Bullies, the epitome of old-time hockey. When those two things are combined, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to see how the makeup of the Penguins roster has undergone quite a shift in recent years, going from the skillful, finesse days of the early 2000s (or in the words of former coach Michel Therrien: "soft"), to the current build that features plenty of in-your-face players that provide a seemingly endless amount of toughness and pugilism.
It has heavyweights like Eric Godard and Mike Rupp (a better hockey player than some might realize) that will drop the gloves with anybody. It has the agitators that play on the edge and walk the line like Matt Cooke and Arron Asham. And that's to say nothing of players like Brooks Orpik, Max Talbot, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams that aren't exactly a picnic to play against, either. And let's not forget that the two centerpiece stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have had their own run-ins with opponents over the years, whether it be Crosby punching Boris Valabik in the junk or Malkin's Stanley Cup throw down with Henrik Zetterberg. (Keep in mind, when the PensBlog was doing it's Mount Dirtymore, an homage to Puck Daddy's summer Mount Puckmore project, that talked about the "dirtiest" Penguins of the past 20 years, Crosby made the cut.)
Not only can this team score a lot of goals, it can also fight and run its opponents through the glass. In short: it's become everything its fans love to hate about its cross-state rivals from Philadelphia.
THE CONCERN ABOUT WINGERS IS OVERRATED
Have you heard? The Penguins need wingers. Panic! You can't read a preview or article about the team's offseason or outlook for 2010 that doesn't bemoan the lack of solid winger depth, or, heck, the absence of even one impact winger. And while they're all accurate to a point (Pascal Dupuis is a nice player and all, but any team that has him as a top-six winger clearly doesn't have a lot of depth at the position) the issue has become quite overrated. This is a team, after all, that won a Stanley Cup with Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko skating in its top-six.
Helping to soften the blow of not having any natural impact wingers is the fact the Penguins are incredibly deep down the middle with centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Such strength at center can help to mask a lot of problems or weaknesses on the outside. Still, one thing the team is prepared to do this season: shift Malkin to a wing on Staal's line. Impact winger problem: solved. Those plans, however, had to be put on hold for right now due to Staal missing the start of the season after a setback with the foot injury he suffered in last year's playoffs.
Regarding Malkin, he fell under quite a bit of scrutiny last season for having a "down" year. And while it clearly wasn't up to the standards he established for himself over the first three years of his career, and while he was downright bad at times in the playoffs, he was still better than a point-per-game player while fighting through an injury-filled season. How many times have you heard somebody point to Malkin's production and reference Crosby drawing the attention of the other team's top defenseman? (Exhibit A, right here) In the end, Malkin has proven to elevate his game to an even higher level when Crosby is out of the lineup (take, for example, the 2007-08 season when Crosby was sidelined with an ankle injury). On the other hand, when Malkin missed 15 games due to various injuries last season, Crosby scored just three of his 51 goals in those games. Bottom line: These two guys are 1A and 1B in terms of importance to the Penguins. Any talk of trading one or the other to satisfy other needs or gain cap relief (and there's been plenty of arguments made for it) is nonsense.
To go along with that, Kunitz has proven to be a capable top-six winger, averaging over 55 points per 82 games played over the past four seasons while providing an aggressive presence on the forecheck. He's also been a top-line player on two Stanley Cup winning teams in the past four years (one with Anaheim, one with Pittsburgh). Top prospect Eric Tangradi may also be ready to provide something this season, though, it may not be right away. The Penguins may be top-heavy in terms of their talent up front (quality over quantity ... just like every other contending team), but they've still finished seventh, sixth and fifth in the NHL in scoring over the past three seasons.
The problem wasn't the offense. The problem was on the defense.
From the start of the offseason Penguins management made it known that upgrading the team's defense was going to be the top priority. It's Plan A was to keep power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar, and then sign Dan Hamhuis after acquiring his rights in a draft-day trade with the Flyers (after they acquired his rights from Nashville). In the end, that plan never came to be after Gonchar signed with Ottawa in the opening minutes of free agency, and Hamhuis decided to test the open market, eventually signing with Vancouver. The Plan B was still pretty solid and should provide a major upgrade, netting the Penguins two of the top-five defensemen available in free agency, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin.
Make no mistake, Gonchar is a huge loss to a power play unit that struggled much of last season, but the additions of Michalek and Martin, to go with Orpik, Kris Legang and Alex Goligoski give the Penguins what could be, on paper, anyway, one of the best defenses in the league. That, of course, means...
THE PRESSURE IS ON MARC-ANDRE FLEURY
By any objective measure goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a terrible 2009-10 season, and was even worse in the playoffs (of course, the same can be said for the performance of the defense in front of him last season, too). He has the talent, and he's had the success at times, backstopping the team to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row, but there's been a lot of inconsistency throughout his entire career.
With the financial investment the Penguins made on their blueline this summer, and with the overall strength of the team, there is no excuse for Fleury to not have a strong, bounce back season in 2010.
Even with the struggles last season the Penguins still believe in him, and at $5 million per season over the next five years they really have no choice but to hope he bounces back.