The Pittsburgh Penguins should once again be in the running for the Stanley Cup, but they may have to do so this time without the big moves that were made last season.
General manager Ray Shero comes into this season a bit more cap-tight than last season; however, he has also proven to be able to find creative ways to improve the Penguins whenever needed. As long as the team has the core group of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Brandon Sutter along with young guys in Beau Bennett and Olli Maatta, the Pens may not need to make big moves at the deadline to make their run.
When looking at the construction of the Penguins, they have been very smart to keep their core group for the long haul while bringing in role players to fill in the gaps and weaknesses in areas where some players have moved on. It’s up to coach Dan Bylsma to bring them all together, develop the chemistry of the lines while making the correct pairings on defense to take pressure away from Fleury and giving themselves great chances to score.
One area of concern last season was short-handed goals where the Pens were fairly low in this category and it hurt the team when they were in penalty situations. This might have been an area for the Pens where they really missed Jordan Staal because he was fantastic in setting up goals shorthanded.
The other area of concern is that no matter how good Fleury looks during the regular season, he becomes a different goalie in the playoffs. The year the Pens won the Cup, Fleury was shaky at times but he finally got himself together enough to win it all. Last season, Fleury was benched in favor of Tomas Vokoun.
Fleury is going to need to step up and become the franchise goalie that he’s shown flashes of being, not only during the regular season but for the entire playoff run. If Fleury would live up to those lofty expectations, the Pens may have another Cup or two by now.
Personally, I believe the Penguins need to stick it out with Fleury for the duration and continue to develop him with some new techniques and much better defense overall that hurt the team in last year’s run. The Penguins did bring in a new assistant coach Jacques Martin, who comes in with a wealth of experience and that could help in game-planning but it could really help with in-game changes that were also a problem last season.
Pittsburgh is in the new Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference along with the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. The Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference features the Detroit Red Wings in a move from the Western Conference along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadians, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres.
The Central Division in the Western Conference brings in the Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators while the Pacific Division has the Calgary Flames, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks.
Hockey may be the most difficult sport to predict a champion due to the nature of the playoffs; however, the Penguins should have enough firepower and solid defense to make another run for the Cup. How far they can go will be dependent on the defense goaltending.
The scoring will be there, the highlight reels will be there but it will be the grit, intangibles and netminding that will ultimately decide whether the Penguins can be champions this year.