For pretty much the better part of 2 seasons, the biggest question in Pittsburgh has been, can Sidney Crosby stay healthy? After making his triumphant return last season against the Islanders, he once again missed time due to post-concussion syndrome, only to return to the team later on. When you play hockey you’re always at risk of getting a concussion, but once you’ve had it, and then had it again, you become more and more vulnerable with each hit. Crosby played in a very rough series against Philadelphia. He had a good series, but former NHLer Gary Roberts didn’t think he was 100%. That could’ve very well been true, but Crosby doesn’t have the time to spend his off-season recovering. Hopefully he is doing fine and has been going on with his workouts as normal, but for the 1st time since winning the Cup in ’09, the Pens have some big questions.
When GM Ray Shero decided to move center Jordan Staal to Carolina to play with his brother, he acquired Brandon Sutter to replace him. Staal and Sutter are probably the 2-best, 3rd-line centers in the NHL. The only problem is, Staal is the better one. There is no doubt that Sutter is fantastic in his own zone, can put up some points, and provides leadership, but downgrading from Staal didn’t benefit the Pens. Last season in only 62 games due to injury, Staal racked up 50 points (25G, 25A). He remained one of the best Penalty Killers in the NHL, had a +11 rating and only had 34 PIM’s. Brandon Sutter played all 82 games last season, and had 17 goals and 15 assists. That’s defenitely a bit disappointing compared to Staal. He was -3 on a bad Carolina team and had 21 PIM’s, which is valuable to the Pens (Who take a decent amount of penalties) because he can be out on the PK a lot more. Sutter has proven that he can put up a decent point total, in ’09-’10, he played in 72 games and had 40 points. If the Pens could get that out of him it’d be fantastic. By no means am I saying this was a bad trade for the Pens, especially because Sutter is a lot cheaper, but this didn’t fill any of the holes that need to be filled.
Another question that has been going around for a while is, who is the winger for Sidney Crosby? Crosby showed that he feels most comfortable with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, but now that Kunitz is on the unstoppable-line of Neal and Malkin, Crosby needs someone to play right wing. Dupuis is a very fast skater and can put up some points, as well as play a pretty good defensive game. Crosby likes to carry the puck, as most centers should, and Dupuis likes to shoot, he’ll shoot from anywhere. But Dupuis isn’t a guy that will give you 60 points. If you’re playing on Sidney Crosby’s wing, you should be pretty close to that. Dupuis should remain on the line, so that if the Pens were to sign Shane Doan, or trade for Bobby Ryan (Both of which seem unlikely at the time) someone can play D. Doan would be a good fit for Crosby, but n0t a great fit. Doan didn’t have a great season a year ago, and Sidney needs a guy that is in the prime of his career and can put up points to the best of his potential.
Another question is the defense. The Pens have Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy, and Deryk Engelland. Kris Letang has dealt with concussions over the past season and is also very vulnerable to miss more time. Paul Martin has continued to disappoint Penguins fans as he hasn’t lived up to the contract he signed 2 off-seasons ago. Matt Niskanen is a solid #4 defenseman that will put up some points and can play on the powerplay. Lovejoy and Engelland are both at best #6 defenseman and normally platoon the spot based on who is playing better. So, who is to take the 7th spot on defense? Simon Despres? Who proved he can play and succeed at the NHL level. Robert Bortuzzo, who has played a fair amount of games at the NHL level. Bryan Strait? Carl Sneep? Who knows, but none of these guys have played a full season in the NHL and could be a bit risky to play every game. The Pens defense was horrendous in the post-season, and wasn’t great during the regular-season either, as they had just the 15th best GAA in the NHL per NHL.com
To somewhat go along with the defense, is the goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury was the backbone of this hockey team for a lot of the past 2 seasons, but come playoff time he had no spine. He was letting in fluke goals, bad bounces got by him, he didn’t seem to be all there. With the trade and signing of Tomas Vokoun, who disappointed in Washington last year partially due to injuries, it will be interesting to see how Fleury handles the pressure of having another #1 goalie right behind him. Head coach Dan Bylsma has proven that Fleury could lose his job. At the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, Fleury was awful, and lost his starting job to Brent Johnson for the better part of 3-4 weeks.
Questions continue to loom in Pittsburgh, while New York and Philadelphia are trying hard to become much better, the Pens are remaining silent.