Penguins 2010-11: Maybe they were the team to beat?
The Penguins will gather today at Consol Energy Center for season-ending meetings, and management is already at work on an offseason plan to place the franchise back among the NHL's elite.
Not a lot of work is required.
The Penguins awoke on New Year's Day as a top-five squad in scoring, defense and penalty kill.
They played most of the final 41 regular-season games without franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and good portions of that stretch minus defenseman Brooks Orpik, wingers Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke, and promising rookie Mark Letestu — and still the Penguins were playing at home in a Game 7 of Round 1 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Of course, they lost, and for a franchise with Cup expectations, not playing deep into May is a disappointment.
Assuming Crosby and Malkin return healthy and play to form next season — perhaps a big presumption given Crosby didn't play after Jan. 5 because of a concussion and Malkin has been injury-plagued the past two seasons — the Penguins will look, on paper, like a Cup favorite when camp opens in September.
However, they have three areas, in particular, to address:
• No. 1: Hire a power-play coach or coordinator to get the Penguins where they belong, given the talents of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. The Penguins were fourth at 20.4 percent three years ago and haven't been close since. Management could start by seeking the advice of co-owner Mario Lemieux and franchise friend Paul Coffey, two of the best power-play performers in NHL history.
• No. 2: Find a winger for Malkin, whose need for help largely has been ignored since 2008, even though the Penguins have actively sought a long-term fit for Crosby. That fit, presumably, is left wing James Neal, acquired this season. However, the Penguins have two franchise centers. Getting a long-term playmate for Malkin is a must.
• No. 3: Upgrade the secondary skill, which aside from Neal — and perhaps center Jordan Staal, whose offensive game has yet to fully develop — doesn't exist. Taking a chance on an aging veteran, even on a two-year deal and even if he isn't an ideal fit, is something to consider instead of waiting until the trade deadline. The Penguins haven't tried that tact since signing Petr Sykora in 2007, but that signing worked for most of his two seasons.
Those are the Penguins' needs during the offseason. This is what was learned from this past season:
THE COACH IS LEGIT
Coach Dan Bylsma's puck-possession system is ideally suited for regular-season success, as was evident by the Penguins' 101 and 106 points the past two years. This Penguins went 24-8-8 in one-goal games this season — third best in the NHL during the regular season — despite playing without Staal, an elite defensive center, for the first 39 games and without Crosby and Malkin for the final 29 contests. Bylsma had to deploy a lineup with four AHL players for nearly a month in the second half, but the Penguins managed 53 points after Jan. 1, when points are traditionally tougher to accrue. Players trusted his teachings, and the payoff was the NHL's third-most points. Bylsma has established himself as a rising star among coaches, not merely a caretaker for a team led by Crosby and Malkin.
The goalie is back
Marc-Andre Fleury was a mess after the Penguins' Game 7 loss last spring to Montreal in Round 2. He didn't finish that game at Mellon Arena. Nearly a year later he almost single-handedly finished off Tampa Bay in Game 7. The Penguins' 1-0 loss Wednesday was Fleury's finest performance since Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final, and it re-established him as arguably the best big-game goalie. It was a fitting — if not satisfying — end to a season during which Fleury started slow (1-6-0), finished fantastic (2.16 goals-against, .925 save percentage over the final 56 starts) and bowed in the full bloom of brilliant saves.
The development is happening
Five years into the tenure of general manager Ray Shero, the Penguins' developmental system has started to pay off in the NHL. Letestu and defenseman Ben Lovejoy — both former prospects signed as free agents in 2007 — established themselves as worthy regulars this season. Left wing Eric Tangradi (trade acquisition, 2009) and center Dustin Jeffrey (6th-round pick, 2007) will follow Letestu and Lovejoy next season. Top prospect Simon Despres, the last first-round pick in 2009, looks to have top-four potential and might not be long for the AHL. The pipeline is loaded with defensemen, the NHL's most desired commodity -- giving Shero options to supplement his core of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury and Letang.
Never too early
The Penguins have 17 players under contract for next season at a potential combined $55,412,500 toward the NHL's salary cap, which was $59.4 million this past season. Next year's cap will be announced before free agency begins July 1. Here are the Penguins' impending free agents:
Alex Kovalev, 38: Scoring winger ($5 million cap hit in 2010-11)
Pascal Dupuis, 32: Scoring winger ($1.4 million)
Max Talbot, 27: Role-playing forward ($1.05 million)
Mike Rupp, 31: Role-playing forward ($825,000)
Eric Godard, 31: Enforcer ($750,000)
*Tyler Kennedy, 24: Scoring winger ($725,000)
Arron Asham, 33: Role-playing winger ($700,000)
Craig Adams, 34: Role-playing forward ($550,000)
Chris Conner, 27: Role-playing winger ($550,000)
*Dustin Jeffrey, 23: Role-playing forward ($509,444)
Mike Comrie, 30: Scoring winger ($500,000)
Nick Johnson, 25: Role-playing winger ($500,000)
Total: 12 players at combined $13,059,444 salary-cap hit
*Restricted free agent; the Penguins will have the option of matching any offer received.
Source: Tribune-Review research