Penguins: Five Things You Need To Know
By Katie Strang
There's a reason the Atlantic Division is regarded as one of the toughest in the league. Four of the five teams made the playoffs last season, and the Penguins will join their familiar foes, the New York Rangers, as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh still boasts the most potent tandem in the league with Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and superstar Sidney Crosby. The Penguins are an elite team even when one is sidelined, so if both can stay healthy, they will be tough to beat.
1. Sid stays healthy
When Crosby is fully healthy and playing to his potential, there's pretty much no stopping him. However, there are two sides to the lockout argument on how it will impact the league's biggest star. One school of thought is the work stoppage provided him the time needed to fully heal from a series of serious concussions, while another would contend that the long layoff and limited number of games he has played over the past two years could leave him more susceptible to injury, and not just concussions. He played in only 22 games last season but racked up 37 points, so imagine what he can do if he stays in the lineup for all 48 games this season. Whether he proves his durability or not, one thing seems evident: No one is more anxious to get back on the ice than the Kid.
2. Another monster year for Malkin
The Penguins hope stud forward Malkin picks up right where he left off. He is coming off not only a dazzling Hart Trophy season (50 goals, 59 assists) but also an impressive European tour during the work stoppage. The 26-year-old has been astounding while playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League for Magnitogorsk Metallurg. Malkin averaged almost two points per game playing for his hometown club, registering a gaudy 23 goals and 42 assists in 37 games.
3. Forget about the playoffs, Fleury
After the debacle that was the Penguins' first-round exit to the Philadelphia Flyers, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has to be desperate to wipe the slate clean. The usually steady Fleury fell apart in the team's divisional matchup, allowing a whopping 4.63 goals per game and posting an unsightly .834 save percentage. Fleury's regular-season performance suggests the first-round hiccup was likely just that -- an aberration. He finished with a respectable .913 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average, and was second in the league with 42 wins.
4. No Staal
The Penguins have gotten used to a glut of talent down the middle, but they will miss some of that depth with the departure of Jordan Staal, who will join his older brother Eric in Carolina this season. Brandon Sutter, acquired from the Hurricanes in the Staal trade, likely will replace his predecessor as the third-line center and has big shoes to fill. Staal chipped in 25 goals and 25 assists to finish fifth in scoring for the high-octane Penguins.
5. Tighten up on D
During the offseason, the Penguins traded away Zbynek Michalek to clear cap space but lost experience on their back end. The team still has Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang on the blue line -- Letang added 42 points last season -- but the team has to be hoping for a far better 2013 campaign for Paul Martin. He had a disappointing season and became the whipping boy for Penguins fans when he didn't live up to his five-year, $25 million contract. The Penguins finished middle-of-the-pack last season with 2.66 goals against per game but will have to do better this season, especially with the importance of divisional games and the strength of the opponents the Penguins will be facing in the Atlantic Division.
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering fifth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 1
No. 1 Pick: Evgeni Malkin
Malkin enters his seventh NHL season coming off his best campaign. At 26 years old, the powerful Russian center is just coming into his prime years. Malkin led all fantasy hockey forwards for value last season by a wide margin. He scored 50 goals for the first time in his career and was the focal point of the Penguins' offense while Sidney Crosby worked his way back from a series of concussions. But Malkin didn't slow down when Crosby returned -- he actually elevated his points-per-game production with Crosby in the lineup for the final month of the season. Malkin showed an elevated number of shots on goal last season, which we can't be sure will be repeated if Crosby plays a full season, but Malkin adjusts his game to suit. In 2008-09 (the last time Malkin and Crosby were healthy for a season), he scored only 35 goals, but he added 78 assists to make up for it, and he was still only 50 shots behind the new career high he set last season.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Penguins:
• June 4: Acquired G Tomas Vokoun from Washington.
• June 22: Acquired C Brandon Sutter, D Brian Dumoulin and a first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft from Carolina.
• June 30: Re-signed D Matt Niskanen.
• July 1: Re-signed C Sidney Crosby.
• July 1: Signed C Trevor Smith, C Warren Peters and LW Tanner Glass.
• July 13: Signed RW Benn Ferriero.
• Aug. 30: Re-signed LW Eric Tangradi, D Brian Strait and D Robert Bortuzzo.
• C Jordan Staal (traded to Carolina)
• RW Arron Asham (unrestricted free agent, signed by N.Y. Rangers)
• LW Steve Sullivan (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• D Zbynek Michalek (traded to Phoenix)
• G Brent Johnson (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Colin McDonald (unrestricted free agent)
• C Cal O'Reilly (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Richard Park (unrestricted free agent)
• D Alexandre Picard (unrestricted free agent)
• C Jason Williams (unrestricted free agent)