2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Key Offseason Additions: Steve Sullivan

Key Offseason Losses: Max Talbot, Michael Rupp, Alex Kovalev

Last Season Ranking: 4th in the East

Offense: The Penguins showed resiliency last year despite an injury-riddled season and it appears as if the team will start the season shorthanded again without center Sidney Crosby. However, many forget that Evgeni Malkin was plagued with injuries last year finally resulting in knee surgery that ended his season in February. The good news is that Malkin looks strong and healthy and appears eager for the upcoming season. And the Penguins will need him.

Without their heavyweights, the Penguins still managed to finish 4th in the East but experienced an early playoff exit without heavy firepower. This season, the team will look to Malkin to lead the charge, but he’ll get help from healthy teammates in Jordan Staal, who played in just 42 games, and Chris Kunitz, who could have posted career-best numbers had he not been limited to 66 games. If Kunitz can continue where he left off, he will be a huge asset to the Penguins this season.

Tyler Kennedy had a career year last season and showed how much depth the Penguins have on offense. A healthy Kennedy is an asset to this club and they will look for Kennedy to continue moving forward with his play and become a vital component to this team’s success.

Two forwards to watch this year will be Mark Letestu and newcomer Steve Sullivan. Letestu, who will be playing his second full year in the NHL, will have a chance to prove himself as an NHL forward and an asset to the team’s offense if he can reach the 40-50 point range. Sullivan, an NHL veteran, is questionable thanks to his long history of injuries. If he can play 75 games or more, Sullivan could post good numbers in the 50-60 point range. However, Sullivan has only played in 60 or more games twice in the last seven years.

The Penguins showed last season they have depth, but their long-term succes hinges largely on Crosby and Malkin’s offensive output. Look for Malkin to shoulder a big portion of the offense until Crosby returns.

Defense: Last season, the Penguins finished with an average of 2.39 goals against per game – good for 7th best in the NHL. The Penguins play a good all-around game and back check effectively, something that will be to their advantage again this season. And as with the team’s offense, a healthy blue line makes the Penguins even better.

Paul Mara proved to be a solid addition and performed up to par with expectations. He provides steady coverage in the defensive zone and if he can get back up to the 30-40 range this season, it will only benefit the team.

Perhaps the biggest surprise last year was Kris Letang, who had a breakout season offensively and contributed 50 points and was plus-15. Letang will be looked upon to provide more of the same this season and see if 50+ can be a new norm for the young defender or just a fluke.

Ben Lovejoy responded to increased playing time with 17 points in 47 games and a plus-11 rating. Keep an eye on Lovejoy as he continues to get more playing time and will look to expand on last season’s success.

Goaltending: The Penguins have a solid tandem in goal headlined by Marc-Andre Fleury, who posted some of the best stats of his career last season and emerged as one of the best goalies in the NHL. A good start to the season will go a long way, but Fleury is mentally tough and technically strong. There isn’t much more to say besides the fact that Fleury, who posted a 2.32 goals against average last season, is a top-end netminder and the undisputed number one in Pittsburgh.

Behind Fleury is backup netminder Brent Johnson. This is the type of backup that every team covets – a steady goalie who makes the saves he’s supposed to make when he’s supposed to make them. Johnson had some consistency issues last season, but more often than not when Johnson gets the call, he’s ready to go and puts in a solid effort.

HWB Playoff Prediction: Playoff bound.

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