The Pittsburgh Penguins once again enter an NHL season as the team to beat, but if they are to win Lord Stanley’s Cup for the second time in five years, the following questions need to be answered in positive fashion during the upcoming 48-game regular season.
1. Will the defense improve?
During the 2011-12 regular season, the Penguins ranked 15th in the NHL, allowing 2.66 goals against. That number skyrocketed to 5.00 in six playoff games, the worst figure of any playoff team.
Defenseman Paul Martin, who is coming off a disappointing year in 2011-12, may hold the key to the Pens being improved defensively.
The former New Jersey Devil needs to be, especially since at $5 million per season, he’s the highest paid defensemen on the team and the fourth-highest paid player on the roster.
2. Will Sidney Crosby stay healthy?
If No. 87 stays healthy, Pittsburgh is the favorite to win it all.
The problem is Crosby hasn’t been able to stay healthy during the last two seasons.
After scoring a career-high 51 goals and recording 58 assists in 2009-10, Crosby sustained a concussion the following season, which sidelined him for 10-and-a-half months. Then, his concussion-like symptoms returned in December 2011 and he didn’t return until mid-March.
Crosby has played in just 63 games the last two season. It goes without saying the Pens need their star on the ice, especially after inking a 12-year, $104.4 million contract last summer.
Crosby has hit the weights hard in the off-season and has bulked up which should pay off.
He’s been leading Pittsburgh’s off-season practice sessions, but what would you expect from your captain?
3. Who will be Evgeni Malkin’s other winger?
Since Crosby starts the season healthy and he’ll obviously be on the first line, Malkin, also a center, returns to the second line, along with James Neal, so who will their right winger be?
Tyler Kennedy? He’s the likely candidate after he had a career year in 2010-11, but suffered through a disappointing campaign a year ago.
It will be crucial to find a capable winger to compliment Neal and Malkin, who captured the Hart Trophy last season after scoring 50 goals and notching 59 assists.
4. Will Jordan Staal be missed?
After last season Staal, a 25-goal scorer in 2011-12, was traded to Carolina for Brandon Sutter.
Staal, a third-line center for the Pens, will be missed as a penalty killer as he was part of a penalty killing unit that was near the top of the NHL in each of the last two seasons.
Sutter is also known for his penalty killing knack. The first-round draft pick has established himself as a capable third-line center.
5. Will the Pens’ goaltending be better?
When Marc-Andre Fleury is on, he’s one of the top netminders in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL.
But Fleury is coming off the worst playoff performance of his professional career, allowing 4.63 goals in six outings, more than a 2-goal per game increase from the regular season.
The Penguins allowed 30 goals in six playoff games. By comparison, the Los Angeles Kings gave up 30 in their 20-game run to the Cup.
Perhaps Fleury ran out of gas in the playoffs. After all, Pittsburgh got no consistent play at the position from his backups, Brent Johnson and Brad Thiessen. As a result, Fleury matched his career high of 67 games in the regular season. At one point in fact, Fleury started 23 games straight leading up to the All-Star Break. He finished with 42 wins, second only to Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
The good news for Fleury is the Pens inked Tomas Vokoun, who comes over from the Washington Capitals.
The problem with Vokoun is he’s coming off a rough 2011-12 season, one marred by inconsistent play and injury.
Be that as it may, with Vokoun on board, Fleury should be pushed to perform at a high level.
Expect the Pens to have excellent competition between the pipes. And expect Fleury to flourish and resemble more of the goalie that led the Pens to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals and to the 2009 Stanley Cup Championship.
No doubt if Pittsburgh gets positive answers to the aforementioned questions, you can expect them to raise the Cup for the fourth time in their history.
Doug Griffiths is a columnist/writer for RantSports. Follow him on Twitter @ISLgriffiths.