The Penguins odds

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS:  FAVORITES TO WIN THE STANLEY CUP

The Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, a defensive prospect and a first round pick (with which they drafted another defensive prospect). Shortly after, they shipped defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes for a couple of prospects and a third round pick.

Then, during the free agency frenzy, the struck out on their main target former New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise and their assumed secondary targets defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Alexander Semin (the verdict is still out on Shane Doan, though the rumored four year, $30 million asking price and the 36-year-old’s desire to stay in the desert suggest he won’t be a Penguin anytime soon, either).

So, obviously, with all of those subtractions and the limited additions the Penguins made so far this offseason, they’re the odds on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Of course they are.

Wait, what?

Yeah, the folks at the sports betting website Bovada recently released their Stanley Cup favorite odds and the Pittsburgh Penguins topped the list at 8-1.

Pretty strange, right? I mean, you can’t argue that the Penguins dress the two best offensive dynamos in the league, when healthy, every night in captain Sidney Crosby and reigning Hart and Art Ross winner Evgeni Malkin.

Forty goal scoring winger James Neal had a breakout 2011-12 season and gritty forwards Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz had career years, each scoring 25-goals.  That’s five-sixths of a pretty good top six forward unit. The depth in the bottom six is there, too, with the newly acquired Sutter and Tanner Glass and the returning Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Craig Adams. Guys like Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey will get their opportunity to crack the big roster’s starting twelve as well.

It’s a good balance of skill, grit and depth. But, minus the second half of the 2010-11 season that they were sans Malkin and Crosby, the offense has never really been something the Pens have had to worry about.

The defense on the other hand is another story.

To be honest, I’m worried about the Pens blue line. Trading away Michalek leaves them with loaded-with-talent but can’t-keep-his-cool Kris Letang, gritty, hard-hitting vet Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and the upstart Matt Niskanen in their top four. As crazy as Letang can act sometimes, he and Orpik are the foundation on what the defense is built on.

Paul Martin had a poor year last year – and that’s probably putting it way more mildly than a lot of Pens fans would put it. He looked lost, made bad decisions, turned the puck over and, ultimately, was benched for the Pens final three games in their first round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, he’s had way more good seasons than bad, so a bounce back season is certainly not out of the question. It needs to happen, though, or Pittsburgh’s blue line is just that much weaker.

Matt Niskanen is an interesting story, too. I seem to forget that he’s even a member of the Penguins on a regular basis.

Seriously.

It’s inexplicable and, after the season he had in ‘11-’12, totally unacceptable. But, isn’t it also kind of a good thing? At times, Niskanen was the most consistent defender the Penguins put on the ice on a regular basis. It was surprising, to say the least, after a mistaken-laden 18-games in 2011. At 25 years old, going on 26, last year was hopefully the year that he “got it” and will play at that level consistently. But you never know, really.

The bottom line to this whole, long, meandering ramble is this:  Even with the two best offensive forwards in the world, a focused and on-his-game Marc-Andre Fleury and a blue line that features a consistent superstar in Letang, grit and leadership in Brooks Orpik, a bounceback season for Paul Martin and the continued success of Matt Niskanen are the Penguins really better than the New York Rangers in the East?

Because the Rangers was the first seed in the East and one game away from the Stanley Cup Finals last season did nothing but get better with the acquisition of Rick Nash a few weeks ago.

And what about the defending champion Los Angeles Kings? They’ll be the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 to, basically, bring back every key player of the team they won the Cup with the previous year. They didn’t add an offensively dynamic player like Marian Hossa like the Wings did the next offseason – though Shane Doan is still in play – but if he produces like he did in Philadelphia, they have a bona fide 40-goal scorer in Jeff Carter who they added at the trade deadline last year.

I don’t think the Penguins have a better shot at the Cup than either of those teams, which makes their ranking atop these preseason odds very curious to me.

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