Pittsburgh Penguins: 2010-11 Season Preview

Just one season removed from their ultimate triumph in 2009 against their newly-crowned nemesis – the Detroit Red Wings – the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves heading into the 2010-11 National Hockey League season refreshed and rejuvenated from an unusually long summer. Rather than playing in the Stanley Cup Final as their rabid fans had become accustomed to over the previous two seasons, Cinderella’s team of choice in the 2010 playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens, upset the heavily-favoured Penguins in a gruelling seven-game Eastern Conference Semi-Final series. In the aftermath of that surprising early exit from Lord Stanley’s playoffs, the franchise has been given a noticeable facelift during the off-season.

Gone are seasoned veterans Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Mark Eaton and Jay McKee, along with 2010 trade deadline acquisitions Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold. Rather than focusing on offence and/or attempting to conclude the never-ending dance of finding a bona fide star winger to play with Sidney Crosby, General Manager Ray Shero instead chose to retool the Pens’ blueline (which he was quoted as saying was his ultimate goal for this summer). With the salary cap room made available by the aforementioned departures, Shero was able to go out and ink two of the most sought-after 2010 UFA rearguards in Paul Martin (4 years, $20M) and Zbynek Michalek (5 years, $20M) to long-term contracts. The additions of Martin and Michalek should more than offset the defenders lost to free agency, and along with rugged stalwart Brooks Orpik and young studs Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, they leave the Penguins with a very solid crop of pointmen on the back end heading into 2010-11, with the 6th spot and potential openings as spares up for grabs at training camp. Names being mentioned as possibilities to make the jump to the Pens’ roster include Ben Lovejoy, Andrew Hutchinson and Steve Wagner from AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, along with 2009 1st round draft choice Simon Despres from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Shero’s only addition to the Penguins’ high-flying offence was grinder Arron Asham, who was signed fresh off a season with the rival Philadelphia Flyers where he helped lead the “Broad Street Bullies” all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, contributing brash tenacity with occasional offensive spurts along the way. Asham signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Penguins, and noted that he turned down more money from other clubs, the decisive factor in his decision of where to play being the opportunity for a championship with Pittsburgh that had eluded him during his time with the Flyers. He is expected to maintain a bottom-six offensive role with occasional duty on the penalty kill.

There was no tinkering done to the Penguins’ sturdy goaltending tandem, as backup Brent Johnson signed a two-year contract extension. With Marc-Andre Fleury appearing to run out of gas late in the Montreal series in 2010, there is a decent chance Johnson will see more playing time in 2010-11 than in previous seasons. This has become an all-too-familiar refrain throughout the NHL and one which, with the particularly horrifying scheduling of a Winter Olympic year, saw fans in Vancouver, New York, Buffalo and Boston also wondering if their star goaltenders were just too tired to be the “difference makers” they needed to be down the stretch and into the playoffs. With the proven, experienced Johnson backing up Fleury, Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma should have little hesitation in resting his ace when needed throughout the season.

Heading into training camp, the biggest question has to be the Penguins’ offensive core. Depending on the status of Jordan Staal’s foot injury (sustained from a collision with P.K. Subban during the playoff matchup with the Habs), Evgeni Malkin appears destined to start the season as either the second line centre or, if Staal is able to suit up, as Crosby’s right winger. Chris Kunitz is expected to join them on the left side of the top unit, with Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis taking the wings on Staal’s line. As for the rest of the offence, anything can happen depending on training camp’s proceedings. Thanks to an embarrassment of riches in the team’s developmental system, American world junior standout Eric Tangradi (acquired with Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Ryan Whitney at the 2009 trade deadline), Chris Conner, Mark Letestu, Brett Sterling, Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson and Ryan Craig are all vying for NHL jobs in 2010-11, all of whom having at least a brief NHL stint under their belts. With depth forwards Tyler Kennedy, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams, enforcer Eric Godard and ’09 playoff hero Maxime Talbot all under one-way contracts, there are 2-3 roster spots ripe for the picking for the cluster of players on the bubble. Tangradi showed some flashes of brilliance with Sidney Crosby during training camp a year ago, and if that chemistry still remains, it isn’t out of the question that the young rookie will be enjoying a first line or top-six role in his first NHL campaign.

When the puck drops on the 2010-11 season in Pittsburgh, the abundance of fresh faces won’t be the only new thing for fans to get energized about. Under construction since 2007, the CONSOL Energy Center (aptly nicknamed “The House That Mario Built”), will serve as the team’s new home digs. The state-of-the-art arena opened with a Paul McCartney concert earlier this summer and is located directly across the street from the Mellon Arena, the only home the Penguins ever knew from their inception in 1967 through to 2010. In addition, the Penguins will host one half of the NHL’s expanding annual outdoor festivities when, on January 1st, 2011, they’ll welcome Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to Heinz Field, home of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers, for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

When all is said and done, there is nothing the Penguins organization would like to achieve more than a fourth Stanley Cup title during their first season in their brand-new building. This revamped roster led by the usual suspects of Crosby, Malkin and Fleury definitely has championship potential, but only time will tell if that potential will be met.