Rant Sports NHL 30 In 30: Pittsburgh Penguins Preview

2011-12  Recap Pittsburgh Penguins

Fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins certainly had plenty cheer about during the course of the 2011-12 NHL season. The Penguins scored more goals (3.33/game) than any team en route to finishing the year tied for the most wins in the league (51). The team’s +61 goal differential was second-best in the NHL, and they also finished ranked in the league’s top five in power play efficiency, penalty kill efficiency, shots per game and shots allowed per game.

Of course, the team did most of this with captain Sidney Crosby sitting on the sidelines in an attempt to recover from ongoing concussion/neck issues. Sid first attempted a comeback on November 21 against the New York Islanders after missing nearly 11 months of game hockey.

The superstar picked right back up where he left off in dominating the league, scoring two goals and recording two more assists in just 15:54 of ice time in that game. He would go on to record 11 points in his first five games back, but would last just eight games before having to sit out three more months after the concussion symptoms returned.

His second comeback was only slightly less compelling, as he recorded two assists against the New York Rangers on March 15. Crosby would post nine points in the first four games of his second comeback and would finish the season with an astounding 37 points in 22 games. For comparison, that 1.68 point/game pace would have posted 139 points over an 82 game schedule. Evgeni Malkin led the NHL in scoring with 109.

Unfortunately, for all they had to cheer about during the regular season, Penguins fans were left with a terrible showing in the postseason as the Penguins defense was absolutely dismantled by the Philadelphia Flyers over six games.

Key Additions

The team added only two players this off-season who have virtually any chance of making an impact on the big club this season: center Brandon Sutter and goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

Sutter, 23, was acquired in the trade that sent Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. He’ll take over Staal’s role as the team’s third line center and while he plays a similar defensively-responsible game, he doesn’t have near the offensive upside Staal does. He’ll be a nice third center, but the Penguins can no longer count on someone to carry the offense should both Crosby and Malkin falter.

While some believe Vokoun will “challenge” or “push” Marc-Andre Fleury for the starting goaltending job, I flat out don’t. The 27-year-old was fine during the regular season – he ranked 12th among goaltenders in shots against, 13th in saves and 12th in goals against average – and the team won 42 games with him in net. He shouldn’t be nearly as blamed for his post-season implosion (.834 SV%, 4.63 GAA) as he has been by fans – the team’s entire defense was nonexistent and left him with one-, two- and even three-one-0′s on more than one occasion.

There’s no telling how many games Vokoun will play this season – anywhere between 20 and 35 wouldn’t surprise me, depending on both his own play and how well Fleury plays.

Key Subtractions

The Penguins lost Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, and Richard Park to free agency this season, but the team’s two biggest subtractions came via trade.

The aforementioned Staal trade was one of the hardest trades for fans to swallow in the last decade. The team also sent Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes in an attempt to clear cap space to sign super free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

It will be interesting to see who steps in for Michalek on the blue line – Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait are all candidates, though Despres seems most likely.

X Factor

Easy: Sidney Crosby’s head. The 25-year-old has been “symptom free” so far this summer according to his personal trainer.

Sid has been able to “really push and challenge himself” with his current workouts according to the trainer, which is exactly what Penguins fans need to hear. If these health issues are truly behind Crosby and he can play a full schedule at full health, the Penguins are among the top teams in the National Hockey League.

If he can’t, though, and he still struggles with symptoms, Penguins fans may have to get used to watching a mid-to-low seed playoff team, especially with no Staal to help carry the offense.

Breakout Player

Winger Eric Tangradi will enter training camp as the team’s biggest question mark and the most breakout potential. The 23-year-old, acquired along with Chris Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange fro Ryan Whitney, entered last season looking to earn a spot on the team out of camp. He’s played in 40 NHL games – 24 last season – and has just five points to show for it, but has recorded 64 points in 79 AHL games over the last two seasons.

At 6’4″, 221 lb, he’s a big body and needs to start using it in the NHL. The Penguins don’t have a player of Tangradi’s size and skill combination to cause havoc in front of the opponent’s net, so the role is his to lose. He could get a shot alongside Malkin and James Neal if head coach Dan Bylsma decides to reunite Crosby with wingers Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, so Tangradi will get his chances. He just needs to cash in.

2012-13 Outlook

The Penguins are a playoff team. That much is for sure. Exactly what kind of playoff team remains to be seen. A healthy Crosby and some improved defensive play could mean an Eastern Conference championship for the Penguins, while more head issues and/or continued defensive inefficiencies could mean as low as a six or seven seed for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champions.

The Rant Sports 30 in 30 series will examine one NHL team per day. Tomorrow: the New Jersey Devils

Follow Troy on Twitter @TroyPfaff for more NHL and Pittsburgh Penguins content

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