Flip open the driver’s side door of the DeLorean. Hop in and set the LCD display to 2010.10.07, Opening Night of last season. Find an open lane on the Veterans Bridge and slam your foot on the gas until the speedometer hits the magical 88 miles per hour. Suddenly, with a zap and a brilliant flash, the shiny new Consol Energy Center comes into view and the Pittsburgh Penguins are about to play the Philadelphia Flyers in the first ever game at the new arena.
Sidney Crosby drifts to centre for the opening faceoff as the crowd cheers with anticipation. We know the disappointing end to last year’s Opening Night story, so let’s skip ahead to something happier, a 6-3 home win over the Atlanta Thrashers (an entity that presently can only be seen with the aid of a time machine) highlighted by two more goals from Crosby: 2010.12.28. That’s right, find the fast lane on Centre Avenue … No police cars in sight … Achieving 88 miles per hour should be a breeze … Much like Crosby scoring points seemed to be a breeze by Christmas.
GM Ray Shero’s plan at that point last season was unfolding perfectly. With a rejuvenated Marc-Andre Fleury a rock-solid wall in net, a revamped defence stonewalling opponents and Crosby tearing a strip through the NHL highlighted by a 25-game points streak, it was unsurprising that Pittsburgh reeled off 12 straight wins and looked like the Stanley Cup contenders everyone expected them to be on Opening Night.
Then, a hit in the Winter Classic happened.
Then, torn knee ligaments happened.
Then, broken bones happened.
Then, torn knee ligaments happened again.
Then, Matt Cooke decided to use his elbows to flip over the already-derailing Pittsburgh train.
Out of this incredibly galling second half of injuries and suspensions, GM Ray Shero was already laying the groundwork for the future. When Crosby, Malkin and later Dustin Jeffrey were lost for the season, the Penguins adapted and played a more defensive style that not only allowed them to survive, but thrive, finishing with the third-highest point total and third-fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Yet the second half and playoffs exposed the Penguins as a club with few secondary scoring threats and a horrendously poor power play.
Thus Shero began his summer in winter, when he acquired young winger James Neal and defenceman Matt Niskanen from Dallas in exchange for defenceman Alex Goligoski ahead of the trade deadline. It would have been a bonus if Crosby recovered in time to play on a line with Neal, but the trade was really about 2011-12 and beyond. Neal has scored 20+ goals in each of the last three seasons so there is no reason to believe that the “Real Neal” was the man who struggled to score down the stretch with Pittsburgh last spring.
When summer actually began, Shero made much more understated signings than the splash of 2010 when he invested $45-million in the space of a few hours to bring in defencemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Instead, Shero’s first announcement was to disclose the name of someone the Penguins did not sign when he put an official end to talks with Jaromir Jagr and the mini-circus of speculation that had sprung up.
Pittsburgh retained right wing Tyler Kennedy, seemingly the only forward who stayed healthy from start to finish last season, who scored a career-high 21 goals. Kennedy received a 2-year deal worth $2-million per season. Versatile Pascal Dupuis who possesses a cannon shot and fellow penalty-killer Craig Adams also both decided to stay in the Pens’ pen for another two years while gritty winger Arron Asham, who had his first season in black and gold interrupted by a concussion, signed another one-year contract.
Mike Rupp, enforcer Eric Godard, forward Chris Conner and 2009 Stanley Cup hero Maxime Talbot all moved on with Talbot cashing in to the tune of $8.75-million over five years, two more years and “a lot more” money than what Pittsburgh offered him, according to Shero. The Pens’ GM continued to be prudent with forwards in free agency, resisting the temptation to bid for high-priced scorers, mindful that in two summers, the contracts of centres Crosby and Jordan Staal expire. It would be foolish to tie up too much future salary cap space now when the salary ceilings of 2013, 2014 and the next CBA parameters are essentially unknown.
This is why the club’s only major signing on July 1 was 37-year old left wing Steve Sullivan. Before a back injury sidelined him for 1 1/2 seasons at the end of 2006-07, Sullivan was a reliable source of 20+ goals. In the twilight of his career, Pittsburgh was able to make a classic low-risk deal for one season at a reasonable $1.5-million. He has already been praised by head coach Dan Bylsma for his intelligence and hockey sense. From a strategic angle, the Pens plan to use him on the top line as left wing to Malkin with Neal on the other side. Sullivan will also appear on the first power play unit manning a point opposite Kris Letang with Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz. If he stays healthy, and it is a big “if”, Sullivan’s value could easily exceed $1.5-million.
Joe Vitale and Richard Park will fill spots on the fourth line vacated by Talbot and Rupp. Both newcomers will be counted on to uphold the success of the Pittsburgh penalty kill, top-ranked in the NHL last season.
With Godard leaving Pittsburgh, the new sheriff in town is Steve MacIntyre, the 6’6″ 265 lb. heavyweight who spent the past three seasons in Edmonton.
Finally, a player this space is tabbing to become a major contributor to the Penguins once his rehabilitation from torn knee ligaments is complete is Dustin Jeffrey. The 23-year old centre/wing scored 7 goals in 25 games last season and demonstrated good on-ice intuition and anticipation. In addition, as the saying goes in baseball, “Speed never slumps.” The same could be true in hockey and Jeffrey’s skating ability was a memorable facet of the skill set he showed before his season ended in Philadelphia. His interception/breakaway goal in overtime in Boston immediately jumps to mind.
EXPECTED OPENING NIGHT LINE COMBINATIONS AND DEFENCE PAIRS
Steve Sullivan – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Chris Kunitz – Jordan Staal – Tyler Kennedy
Matt Cooke – Mark Letestu – Pascal Dupuis
Joe Vitale – Craig Adams – Arron Asham
Kris Letang – Deryk Engelland
Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen – Ben Lovejoy
(This assumes D Brooks Orpik, LW Steve MacIntyre and RW Richard Park are scratched).
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch