The Season Preview will be a running column on questions and thoughts for the upcoming season. Individual teams will be highlighted in each post. CLICK HERE for the full list of Season Previews.
Pittsburgh is going to be good. We all know this. We all must accept this (even you Caps fans).
It’s hard to see them not steamrolling the newly formed Metropolitan division, while putting up monstrous goal totals and remaining far and away the league’s best offense. And with Ribeiro’s powerplay production gone from Washington, it’s likely that we’ll see Pittsburgh take the #1 spot with their powerplay too.
How good will they be? Well, they have two of the top 5 players in the world, and the argument could be that Sidney Crosby (insert mustache joke here) and Evgeni Malkin are #1 and #2 in the game right now. If that isn’t enough evidence for you… their supporting cast is pretty fantastic too. And they’ve been able to maintain that, despite some big name departures over the years (like Gonchar, Malone, etc). They’ve had savvy signings and smart drafting over the years, and when they trade, they tend to make sure they don’t overpay (like with Jarome Iginla last year). It’s a smart franchise that people want to play for, with strong team chemistry and they should keep right on winning for years.
So, why don’t I just proclaim them cup favorites from the start? They’ve got a healthy Crosby and Malkin for the first time in a while, and their only losses were playoff rentals Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, and Douglas Murray, plus long time gritty (and by gritty, I mean dirty) winger Matt Cooke. Losses that they could or should be able to overcome. These guys didn’t give them what they needed anyways… which brings me to the Penguin’s Achilles heel and ultimately the reason I don’t think they’re going home with any significant hardware this season… Goaltending. It is, to put it lightly, bad. The argument could be made that the defense is equally to blame… but…
With James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuise, and trade-deadline acquisition Jussi Jokinen adding to the talents of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins offense will be there. And it was there in the playoffs too. It’s not at fault for what has become an all too common early round exit for the Penguins. It’s that other end of the ice. And that it hasn’t been properly addressed is a little disheartening.
Sure, I was being antagonistic when I faulted Marc Andre Fleury for the bad savings in net, but the truth is that he has been as bad in the playoffs as pretty much any goalie in recent history (check out this SB Nation article for even more Fleury lowlights and commentary). He has had four straight playoffs with a save percentage below .900, which as it stands, gives him the worst playoff save percentage of any active netminder (with at least 20 games played). That’s right, he has fricking pre-Hasek type playoff numbers. He has somehow managed to play his way from being a contender for team Canada’s starting job while making some hockey experts wonder if he can break Martin Broduer’s wins record (spoiler: he can’t) to being a bad alternative to Thomas Vokoun. That’s almost an almost improbable reversal of fortunes, and it puts a massive amount of pressure onto a goaltender who has had a really hard time performing in the spotlight recently. It’s hard to see any reason why this year’s performance won’t be any different; serviceable during the season and just abysmal come the playoffs.
I do see a pretty big silver lining though, which is that the Penguins (well, Blysma) seem to be learning their lesson with Fleury. The leash was shortened last year and his ineptitude finally led to a switch in net, and potential ace-up-the-sleeve, Thomas Vokoun, finally got the chance to start for a decent team in the playoffs. The results were good, but not great. His 2.01 GAA and .933 Sv % were far better than Fleury’s 3.52 GAA and .883 Sv%. And I contend that Vokoun was a stellar goalie during his time with the Nashville Predators… so, why isn’t he just giving the reins until he falters and Fleury can prove that he deserves to be the top man again. Well.. for starters, Vokoun had surgery to remove a blood clot and will miss the start of the season. How long he’ll miss remains to be seen. The other problem is that Vokoun is 37 and past his prime. He’s not a long term solution, and isn’t really that convincing as a short term one too. This leaves the Penguins in a difficult situation. It’d be risky to to put too much faith into an older goalie like Vokoun, and it’d be foolish to put much faith in their once franchise goalie too.
This situation will likely be an ongoing narrative this season for the Penguins, because the rest appears to be a given for this very talented team. Beyond injuries, their defense, goaltending, and horrible penalty kill will be something to keep an eye on. It’s tricky too, because day to day in the NHL, these deficiencies won’t show themselves as much. Teams don’t have much time to adjust and get to know their opponent’s weak points in a regular season game. That all changes in the playoffs, when a series can become more a chess match of strategy and preparation, and it’s likely what will keep the Penguins from making a deep playoff run.