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Depth impressive for Cup-hunting Pens

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

The Penguins are due some breaks after injuries stalled their push for the Stanley Cup last season. On paper - and this game of hockey remains played on sheets of ice - this looks like the most complete team general manager Ray Shero has assembled for the start of a season. They are not perfect, but if healthy the Penguins deserve "favorite" consideration for the Cup.

An analysis of their roster from Tribune-Review beat reporter Rob Rossi:


The NHL knows no finer 1-2-3 pivot punch than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. When healthy that trio of centers provides opponents a "nearly impossible matchup problem," said Carolina coach Paul Maurice. Of course, the "Big Three" centers played together in only two games last season because of injuries to Crosby (concussion), Malkin (right knee) and Staal (right foot and hand).

The return of Crosby remains this group's great mystery, and until his comeback Mark Letestu (14 goals as a rookie) is safe as a third-line center. Coach Dan Bylsma is bullish on center Joe Vitale, who won a fourth-line spot with a strong training camp.

Bylsma still talks of pairing Malkin and Staal together when Crosby returns. Even if they stay apart, though, career-best seasons are realistic expectations.

BELIEVE IT: Crosby, Malkin and Staal have played together in only seven of the past 96 games dating to Round 2 of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.

AWARD POTENTIAL: Malkin should challenge for the Art Ross (scoring leader). Staal, a finalist for the Selke (defensive forward) in his last full season, should be a short-list contender. Crosby, given his uncertain status, might have to settle for the Masterton (perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication).



General manager Ray Shero admits that no team can "have everything" in the NHL's salary-cap era, and the wing position has proven the Penguins' weakest during the Crosby Era. This group of wingers should surprise by that standard.

There are four potential 20-goal scorers in Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, with the coaching staff believing Neal capable of 30. Neal (22 goals last season) is now a right winger, providing the Penguins formidable depth on that side to go with Kennedy (21) and Dupuis (17).

If he can stay healthy, veteran left wing Steve Sullivan has the hockey IQ to provide Malkin his best fit since the days of Petr Sykora. Sullivan, who has played at least 60 games just once the last four seasons, likely will run a power-play attack that hasn't reached its potential - or the top 10 - since the 2008-09 season.

Grit exists in the form of Craig Adams, Arron Asham and Matt Cooke, the latter whom must change his line-crossing ways when it comes to hits because of his value as a potential 15-goal scorer and expert penalty killer.

BELIEVE IT: No Penguins winger has scored at least 30 goals since Alex Kovalev's 32 markers in the 2001-02 season.



When Brooks Orpik (abdominal) returns, he will team with Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to provide the Penguins a top-four for any NHL club to envy. Martin and Michalek, having had last season to soak in Bylsma's quick-retrieval system, figure to consistently look more like the players Shero envisioned when signing them to big contracts in July 2010.

Late last season Michalek found a goal-scoring touch, and the Penguins need to make better use of his right-handed shot as a first-unit replacement or second-unit anchor as a power-play point man.

Deryk Engelland is the rare defensemen who will drop the gloves, but his fighting overshadowed fairly reliable play last season. Ben Lovejoy can be considered a steady sixth defenseman. A move to the left side, where he is more comfortable, must bring out better from Niskanen, whose puck-movement skill should mesh with what Bylsma craves of defensemen.

The Penguins need Orpik, their heart-and-soul unit leader and most physical defensemen, healthy for the playoffs. He hasn't been the past two postseasons. More consistency from Niskanen could afford coaches to lessen Orpik's workload.

BELIEVE IT: Letang and Martin combined for only five goals over the final 55 games last season.

AWARD POTENTIAL: Letang had few equals through half of last season. A Norris (best defenseman) nod is a realistic expectation.



Rare is the club that can count on its roster an elite No. 1 goalie and arguably the best backup in the league. The Penguins are that club with starter Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson as their No. 2.

Fleury was the Penguins' best player last season - quite remarkable given his second win came on Nov. 12. Overall he finished sixth in wins (36), ninth in goals-against average (2.32) and 14th in save percentage (.918). The frightening part is that he really could improve in the latter category.

Johnson was a rock as Fleury struggled early, and the Penguins wouldn't have tied for the third most points (106) in the NHL last season if not for his 13 wins in 23 appearances.

Goaltending will always be overlooked for a team that employs Crosby and Malkin, but the Penguins really are only as good as their stoppers.

BELIEVE IT: The Penguins allowed two or fewer goals in 44 games last season.

AWARD POTENTIAL: A Jennings (fewest goals against) is a possibility for the Fleury-Johnson combination. Also, looking away ahead, Fleury could claim the Conn Smythe (playoffs MVP).



Given their nucleus of gifted centers and depth at defense and among wingers, there is little room for prospects to make a significant impact so long as the Penguins stay healthy. However, no NHL team stays healthy, and when inevitable injuries hit the Penguins should again be ready with capable call-ups from the AHL.

Jason Williams, a veteran with parts of 10 seasons of NHL experience, was hurt in training camp. He is likely the first AHL player the Penguins will call upon if needed. Eric Tangradi, once the organization's top prospect, and Colin McDonald (42 AHL goals last season) are also high on the list of forwards in-waiting.

Brad Thiessen is seemingly the heir-apparent to Johnson as Fleury's backup. If needed for that role sooner he is close to if not ready.

Defense, though, is where it's at in the organization. Bylsma has always spoken well of Brian Strait, who will compete with veteran Alexandre Picard to win notice. Roberto Bortuzzo is injured, but once healthy will be in this mix.

BELIEVE IT: The Penguins had 350 man-games lost last season, and played with no fewer than four AHL regulars for most of February.



The roster




87 *Sidney Crosby 5-11, 200 pounds 24 $8.7 million

10 Mark Letestu 5-11, 195 pounds 26 $625,000

71 Evgeni Malkin 6-3, 195 pounds 25 $8.7 million

11 Jordan Staal 6-4, 220 pounds 23 $4 million

46 Joe Vitale 5-11, 205 pounds 26 $512,500



27 Craig Adams 6-0, 197 pounds 34 $675,000

45 Arron Asham 5-11, 205 pounds 33 $775,000

9 Pascal Dupuis 6-1, 205 pounds 32 $1.5 million

48 Tyler Kennedy 5-11, 183 pounds 25 $2 million

18 James Neal 6-2, 208 pounds 24 $2.875 million

12 Richard Park 5-11, 190 pounds 35 $550,000

67 *Nick Petersen 6-2, 186 pounds 22 $566,666



24 Matt Cooke 5-11, 205 pounds 33 $1.8 million

15 *Dustin Jeffrey 6-1, 205 pounds 23 $575,000

14 Chris Kunitz 6-0, 193 pounds 32 $3.725 million

33 Steve MacIntyre 6-5, 250 pounds 31 $600,000

26 Steve Sullivan 5-8, 161 pounds 37 $1.5 million



41 *Robert Bortuzzo (D) 6-3, 196 pounds 22 $535,000

5 Deryk Engelland (D) 6-2, 202 pounds 29 $566,667

58 Kris Letang (D) 6-0, 201 pounds 24 $3.5 million

6 Ben Lovejoy (D) 6-2, 215 pounds 27 $525,000

7 Paul Martin (D) 6-1, 200 pounds 30 $5 million

4 Zbynek Michalek (D) 6-2, 210 pounds 28 $4 million

2 Matt Niskanen (D) 6-0, 200 pounds 24 $1.5 million

44 Brooks Orpik (D) 6-2, 219 pounds 31 $3.75 million

3 *Boris Valabik (D) 6-7, 255 pounds 25 $550,000



29 Marc-Andre Fleury (G) 6-2, 180 pounds 26 $5 million

1 Brent Johnson (G) 6-3, 199 pounds 34 $600,000

*On injured reserve

Sources: Penguins media relations; Tribune-Review research

Additional Information:

Call it a hunch

Tribune-Review Penguins beat reporter Rob Rossi's predictions for the 2011-12 NHL season:

Hart Trophy (MVP): Evgeni Malkin, Penguins

Art Ross Trophy (points): Evgeni Malkin, Penguins

'Rocket' Richard Trophy (goals): Steven Stamkos, Lightning

Vezina Trophy (goalie): Carey Price, Canadiens

Norris Trophy (defenseman): Drew Doughty, Kings

Selke Trophy (defensive forward): Ryan Kesler, Canucks

Jack Adams Award (coach): Randy Carlyle, Ducks

Division winners: Penguins (Atlantic), Canadiens (Northeast), Capitals (Southeast), Red Wings (Central), Canucks (Northwest), Ducks (Pacific)

Eastern Conference final: Penguins over Capitals

Western Conference final: Kings over Red Wings

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins over Kings

Conn Smythe Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Penguins

Additional Information:

Teams to watch

Boston Bruins

Coach: Claude Julian

Record last season: 46-25-11 (103 points), 1st in Northeast Division

Record against the Penguins last season: 2-1-1

Departures: Mark Recchi

Arrivals: Joe Corvo

Scouting report: The defending Stanley Cup champion remains a hungry and well balanced team. Boston is led by Tim Thomas, whose unorthodox goaltending style isn't just good for regular season dominance but, as he proved last sping, is capable of winning a championship. Zdeno Chara remains perhaps the league's most imposing shutdown defenseman, and Boston's forwards are relatively young and poised for a lengthy period of contending for a championship. There is hardly any turnover here, which explains why the Bruins are on anyone's short list of championship contenders. The Bruins know how to win, and won't be an easy out when the 2012 playoffs come around.

Why this team can win the Cup: Because they learned what it takes last season by beating the Canucks in Vancouver in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup. It must also be noted that the Bruins largely bring back the same team, with potential star Tyler Seguin another year wiser. They won the Stanley Cup despite receiving almost no production from their power play, which could be a scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.




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