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AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
By Scott Burnside
The Penguins became the first team since the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers to lose in the Stanley Cup finals one season and then return the next year to win a championship. Those Oilers went on to win four more Cups in the next six seasons. Can the youthful Pens match that kind of performance? It's unlikely, given the parity in the NHL and the salary cap. But they remain a dominant team with young stars like captain Sidney Crosby, defending scoring champ and playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal, all players still growing into their respective games and, more importantly, locked into long-term contracts.
"We're a year removed from when everyone was talking about how tough it is to get back, so we kind of defied the odds a little right there by getting back," Crosby, the youngest player to captain his team to a Cup, told ESPN.com on the eve of training camp. "Both teams did. It's amazing to me. I think about that a lot. I think about winning, but I think about the fact that both teams got back there, especially with how close everyone is today.
"The teams are so good. So to think that both teams got there two years in a row, the odds are even worse that you can get back there next year, like way worse. You know what, it's a lot to be expected, but at the same time, those are the type of challenges you look forward to."
1. Sid's no kid
Hard to believe the maturation process of the Penguins' captain, who has grown into a leadership role without missing a beat on the ice, where he finished third in the regular season with 103 points and led all playoff goal scorers with 15. He talked about wanting to get off to a better start than a year ago; the entire team struggled, leading to the dismissal of coach Michel Therrien.
"I think if I look toward my seasons, I always look at consistency. I didn't have a good start [last season], so I always kind of look at the season before and what I want to improve on," Crosby said. "I want to have a better start, for sure. That's important, not just for me, but for us as a whole team to make sure we start off on the right foot."
If there is one person on this team who understands there are no free tickets back to the playoffs, it's Crosby, and his continued commitment to preparation and focus will be every bit as important as the points he puts on the board.
"I'm not worried [about a Cup hangover], but it's something you can't avoid recognizing and making guys aware because you don't want to be 20 games in and say, 'We've got to regroup here, we're not where we need to be.' So it starts at camp as it does every year. You kind of establish your identity and guys' roles and things like that. You can't assume everybody knows what they're supposed to do because everything worked out last year, so you have to start building as you would every other year and it all starts from camp and moves forward.
"Basically you have to start all over and build it again."
2. A new-look blue line
One-third of the Penguins' starting six defense corps is gone. Rob Scuderi (nicknamed "The Piece" for his game-saving, perhaps series-saving, save in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the Cup finals) signed in Los Angeles and Hal Gill, much maligned but surprisingly effective, landed in Montreal.
Watch for Alex Goligoski to take a step forward in his development, and veteran Jay McKee hopes to put a series of disappointing injuries that limited his time and effectiveness in St. Louis behind him. Coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com he's been impressed with McKee's efforts to integrate himself quickly into the Penguins' systems. The key figure to watch, though, is young Kris Letang, who had a terrific playoff with four goals and 13 points and will be asked to do more at both ends of the ice. He has the tools; the question is whether he has the brain to match those tools.
3. Soup for you!
Last season, Evgeni Malkin continued his ascendancy toward superstardom as he held off Alex Ovechkin, who made a strong push down the stretch, to win his first scoring title. Malkin also earned playoff MVP honors with 36 postseason points.
Still, there remains an air of mystery about Malkin. Although his English is slightly better -- he talked recently to ESPN.com about his mom's cooking and, in particular, her way with borscht, and sleeping away a vacation in Spain -- he remains in the shadows profile-wise compared to Crosby and Ovechkin.
Still, there is no doubt the two Pittsburgh centers push each other. Crosby acknowledged it would be fun to go neck-and-neck with Malkin for a scoring title, with maybe Ovechkin thrown in for good measure.
"There's nights where, personally, I might not be on, but I see [Malkin] have a shift and I want to follow it up and I'm sure he's the same way," Crosby said. "We take a lot of pride in contributing and making sure we're making things happen out there, whether we're together or not. We both take pride in that. It makes it interesting."
4. Winging it
As deep as the Penguins are down the middle -- and no one matches the Crosby-Malkin-Staal troika for size and skill -- there remain some questions about whether the Penguins have enough of a complement of, well, complementary wingers. Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz provided solid help to Crosby, although Kunitz is as streaky as they come when it comes to scoring.
Malkin found some nice chemistry with Ruslan Fedotenko, but frequent sidekick Petr Sykora is gone and that opens up a spot for perhaps Pascal Dupuis or Ryan Bayda, who was signed in the offseason. Rookies Eric Tangradi, Luca Caputi and Nick Johnson will all get a look and, with Maxime Talbot out until November with a shoulder injury, there will be an extra lineup spot at least for the short term. Still, look for GM Ray Shero to be on the lookout for a top-end scorer come trade-deadline time, just as he has the past two seasons when he added Marian Hossa, Guerin and Kunitz.
5. Power outage?
Strange, but the Penguins never really got their power play going during the regular season (they were 20th in the league), but they saw their efficiency jump significantly during the postseason. Don't expect the team to suffer through the prolonged power outages that marked the time leading up to Therrien's firing in mid-February, but Bylsma said one of his goals is to introduce a series of different looks on the power play depending on the opponent and situation.
6. Goodbye, Mellon
The Pens will be playing their last season in the antiquated Mellon Arena. The new Consol Energy Center, which has arisen like magic in an empty lot across the street from Mellon, will be ready for occupancy before the end of the current season, but the Penguins won't move in until the start of 2010-11. Do the Penguins get to christen the new building with another banner-raising? Hmm.
7. Gonch gone?
Uh, no. Still, the one issue facing Shero as the 2009-10 season starts is locking up Sergei Gonchar to a contract extension so he and the veteran Russian defender don't have to worry about it. Gonchar could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Hard to imagine that Gonchar, 35, won't be in a Penguins jersey until he hangs up the skates.
8. Jordan's crossing
What next for the latest Cup-winning Staal? Jordan battled through a disappointing start to the playoffs to provide a virtuoso performance through the last two rounds and especially in the Cup finals. One thing is for certain, all rumors to the contrary, Staal remains very much a part of the fabric of this Penguins team and will remain so going forward.
9. A scheduling note
The Penguins close out the season with six of eight at home and their final two games, on the road, are against the New York Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers. Just what you need if you're looking to make a push to win a division or a conference.
10. Olympic exposure
No surprise that the talented Penguins will likely have a bevy of players taking part in the Vancouver Games, including Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar, who will play significant roles for the Canadians and Russians, respectively. Staal and Fleury were also invited to the Canadian orientation camp, but aren't locks. Guerin has an outside shot at the U.S. team if he gets off to a lightning start.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 45-28-9
• Division: Second in the Atlantic
• Conference: Fourth in the East
• Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup
• Even with a strong challenge from Philadelphia, we ask this question and find no answer: Who can beat the Penguins?
Yet, Bylsma was full value for guiding the floundering Penguins into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. When the Pens fell behind to both Washington and Detroit in the playoffs by 2-0 counts, Bylsma made small but ultimately significant lineup and line combination adjustments and the Pens came away champions.
Still, even now, Bylsma has the sheen of newness about him. Recently, the trainers were joking with Bylsma that they didn't yet know the training camp side of their coach. "I'm still having a lot of firsts," Bylsma recently told ESPN.com. "I'm still not done with that."
That said, he doesn't think the challenges are all that different at the start of the season than coming in mid-stream. "As a coach, you're always asking yourself, where are we at, where are we going, what kind of team do we want to be," Bylsma said.
Rest assured, the Penguins will know the answers to those questions before the puck drops on this season. As for the inevitable questions of a Cup hangover, Bylsma said he and the coaching staff have spent a lot of time in the offseason talking to various people, including Pittsburgh Steelers coaches, about how to build on success.
F -- Sidney Crosby
• One of the top three players in the world on anyone's list.
F -- Chris Kunitz
• Reminds us of a torpedo on skates. Has similar hands.
F -- Bill Guerin
• Wily veteran was an important locker-room presence during the Cup run.
D -- Sergei Gonchar
• Gutsy performance to return to action after what looked like a season-ending knee injury.
D -- Brooks Orpik
• Eats nails for breakfast. Corrugated steel for lunch. Opposing forwards for dinner.
Best Bet: Evgeni Malkin, F: So Malkin's goal total dropped by 12 last season. So what? He made up for it by notching 19 more assists to garner the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer. Malkin finds a way to get it done. He's averaged 16 power-play goals and 79 penalty minutes over his three-year career, and, really, the only reason he falls No. 2 to Alex Ovechkin in our overall player projections is because of the ridiculous number of shots on goal his fellow countryman takes. Consider Malkin the no-brainer second-overall pick in your fantasy league.
Risky Move: Marc-Andre Fleury, G: Fleury is a tough nut to crack. Injuries have been an ongoing concern with him. The Penguins would surely like to start him in 70-plus games, but he has never reached that threshold. But even a healthy Fleury seems to lack the consistency to be a reliable No. 1 goaltender in fantasy. He does have a tendency to catch fire late in the season, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to put up with his slow starts. At the end of the day, we are going with Fleury as the best No. 2 goaltender available on the draft table, and wouldn't fault anyone for making him a No. 1. He did improve his goals-against average by 20 points (when you look at only his healthy seasons) and he should be able to shave off that many again this season.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
One glance at the weight assigned to the five-on-five category in ESPN The Magazine's upcoming NHL projections will tell you how important it is for teams to excel at even strength. But allow us to briefly reinforce that point by telling you that the top 10 teams in even-strength goal ratio all made the playoffs last season. Only two teams in the bottom third of that category reached the postseason, and both were eliminated in the first round.
That finding bodes well for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the top three five-on-five teams in our projections. Although all three flourish in this category, each team achieves its results differently.
Will the Pittsburgh Penguins be able to win the Atlantic Division this season?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.