(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
As they've been accustomed to, the Pittsburgh Penguins cruised along during the regular season where they would finish first overall in the Eastern Conference (36-12-0, 72 pts.). The injury bug would then strike along the way, but not derailing Stanley Cup hopes like they had done so in the past. Sidney Crosby missed the final 12 games after breaking his jaw, thanks to a deflected puck. Evgeni Malkin was sidelined 16 games with a various ailments. Kris Letang missed time with a broken toe. James Neal suffered a concussion in April.
Despite all that, the Penguins managed to reach the Eastern Conference Final, but were shockingly swept by the Boston Bruins in a series where the Pittsburgh offense managed only two goals.
Even with the finish to their season, general manager Ray Shero stuck by head coach Dan Bylsma, handing him a two-year contract extension, and gave a vote of confidence to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who again struggled during the postseason.
It's been a Stanley Cup-or-bust mindset for the Penguins for a while now. Can they overcome last season's disappointment and bring another championship back to Pittsburgh?
Evgeni Malkin loves scoring highlight-reel goals against the Lightning.
For the adds, Shero's biggest move was bringing back Rob Scuderi on a four-year deal. The 34-year old defenseman is best known for his kick save during Pittsburgh's 2-1 Game 6 in over the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
The only other additions were minor. Harry Zolnierczyk moved back to Pennsylvania after being traded by Anaheim; Matt D'Agostini comes over from New Jersey; and Brendan Mikkelson signed from Tampa. All will play depth roles, with most of their time likely spent in the AHL.
Leaving the Steel City after a brief stay was Jarome Iginla, who after some confusion the first time around, ended up with the Boston Bruins on a one-year deal. Fellow late-season acquisition Brenden Morrow heads to St. Louis on a one-year deal, while Douglas Murray moved on to the Montreal Canadiens.
Aside from a few short-term Penguins heading out, a couple of long-time ones were as well. Hockey fan favorite and penalty killer extraordinaire Matt Cooke's tenure in Pittsburgh ended after five season as he signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract with the Minnesota Wild. And in a bit of a cost cutting move to put toward extensions for others, Tyler Kennedy was shipped to the San Jose Sharks on draft day for a second round pick.
Forward: Things up front begin with the two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both were held pointless against the Bruins, but were over a point per-game during the regular season (Crosby: 56 points, 36 games / Malkin: 33 points, 31 games). Crosby was on his way to another Art Ross Trophy and potentially a second Hart before breaking his jaw.
Strong seasons helped earn Crosby's linemates, Chris Kunitz (22 goals) and Pascal Dupuis (38 points), new four-year extensions. Malkin's winger, James Neal, who is already locked up, has started his NHL career with five-straight 20-goal seasons.
Second year man Beau Bennett will get a shot alongside Malkin and Neal in his first full NHL season. Jussi Jokinen, who came over from the Carolina Hurricanes in April (and who are picking up $900,000 of his $2.1 million salary this season), could see time in the top six and be an added boost (55-percent success rate) to a Penguins side that finished seventh in face-offs.
The Penguins' top five accumulated 87 of the team's 165 goals. From there, the drop off begins, and losing the likes of Kennedy and Cooke leave questions as to where the scoring will come from out of the bottom half.
Brandon Sutter (11 goals) was the only forward outside of the big guns who reached double digits in goals. Jokinen scored seven times in 10 games, so he should help in that department. But Tanner Glass, Craig Adams and Dustin Jeffrey are not renowned for their scoring prowess.
Defense: Kris Letang has a fat new eight-year, $58 million extension as the microscope above him gets larger. He'll bring the offense (38 points in 35 games) and be an integral part of a top power play unit that features him as the only defenseman, but defensively he was exposed at times during the playoffs. In an effort to assist him, he's been partnering with comeback-boy Scuderi, who handled increased minutes during his time in LA.
Paul Martin recovered from a poor 2011-12 to score six times and record 23 points. Brooks Orpik could find himself with Martin again, a place he's been during this preseason. It should be a stronger top four with Scuderi's defense-first approach.
Filling out the six will be a mix of Matt Niskanen, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland. The Penguins are currently over the salary cap ceiling, which could be helped if rumors of a potential Niskanen trade become realized or the team chooses to place Tomas Vokoun on LTIR.
Goalies: A blood clot in Vokoun's pelvis, which was discovered over the weekend, threw a monkey wrench into the Penguins' goaltending plans for the season. With Vokoun out indefinitely and no timetable for his return, Marc-Andre Fleury will get the full reigns to start the regular season. Mike Bales replaced Gilles Meloche as goalie coach and the hope is that whatever has turned Fleury's game upside in the playoffs will be cured. For the moment, Jeff Zatkoff will be the backup and given the opportunity to prove he can handle the job, otherwise Shero will be likely be on the market for a veteran No. 2.
GM Ray Shero has the endorsement of ownership and puts his teams in positions to make a Stanley Cup run every season. He's been able to add pieces when needed during the season because he's left himself cap space to work with. Last season, he put all his chips into the middle of the table by acquiring Iginla, Morrow and Murray near the deadline, but it didn't work out. Will we see more tweaks come NHL Trade Deadline 2014?
Another disappointing end in the playoffs for Dan Bylsma didn't mean his firing, but the seat under him certainly got warmer. Stubborn at times to make adjustments, Bylsma should be feeling the heat having to finally now coach for his future. To assist his head coach, Shero added a third assistant in long-time NHL head coach Jacques Martin.
It's a great day for hockey, polka style!
Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. James Neal. Chris Kunitz Pascal Dupuis. Not many teams can match the firepower Pittsburgh possesses.
The depth on defense is a strong point. Players like Olli Maata, Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington may not see NHL ice time this season, but will push for spots in the future.
Aside from the penalty kill (25th, 79.6 percent), it will come down to what happens in net. Will Fleury instill confidence in the coaching staff with his play during the regular season and, most importantly, the playoffs? If not, can a healthy Vokoun handle the workload, whenever he returns?
Barring a major injury bug hitting the team, the Penguins will battle for the Metropolitan Division title and finish near the top of the Eastern Conference. The questions start in the playoffs as the pressure to win another championship grows. Fleury is in a make-or-break season and has a lot to prove after failing to get it done now for several postseasons. If the questions in goal can be cleared up -- whether it's Fleury or Vokoun or someone else -- they'll make for scary Cup contenders.