Monday, May 17, 2010

Pool Outlook for Pittsburgh

Much like the Red Wings, who were looked at a couple of days ago, the Penguins received an early finish to their Summer, but not before playing a whole lot of hockey over the past few seasons.  With the amount of hockey and the number of commitments these players have nowadays, the ability of making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in back-to-back years, winning it once, is a marvel, in my opinion.  Dropping out in the second round for the Penguins is not necessarily a step back, rather a step towards getting some well-deserved rest.  The Penguins have only been out of the playoffs for a couple of days, but the critique of their departure seems rather harsh, seeing as though they have done a lot more than 28 teams in the league, the Red Wings being the only one who draws comparisons.

Unlike the Red Wings, the best player on the Penguins had himself a banner year and didn't have to leave it up to a team effort to carry them along in 2010.  Sidney Crosby was by far the Penguins' best player in the year and he put up a good banner year, even by his own high standards.  Crosby had himself a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy for the league title in goals with 51 and finished in a tie for 3rd in pool scoring with 109 points, 2nd among all forwards, thanks to his goal total.  Remarkably, in the five seasons he's played in the NHL, he's never finished on top of pool scoring, finishing 2nd or 3rd a combined three times.  Nevertheless, Crosby is a pretty good lock for a top three pick in anyone's draft and it can never be a surprise to suggest him being a 1st pick overall, because of his all-around game.

Depth of scoring at the forward position did have some issues to overcome, especially with injuries.  Evgeni Malkin was one of those players that were hit with injuries, playing in only 67 games and registering a mere 77 points.   Malkin was the top dog in 2009, but only managed to finish 30th in pool scoring in 2010, but I would imagine he'll still be a top draw for the draft this Fall.  The Penguins scoring depth does drop down dramatically after Malkin though.  The Penguins acquired Alex Ponikarovsky from the Leafs and he finished 3rd among Penguins forwards with 50 points in 77 games, while Jordan Staal had 49 points in 82 games, Bill Guerin dropped a little to 45 points in 78 games, but Pascal Dupuis moved up to 38 points in 81 games. With so much money tied up in superstars, the Penguins will have to work hard to find some good scoring depth to play wing for their great centres.  Once you start picking and choosing your centres from this team, be very wary of who else you pick up, especially after free agency hits this team in the Summer.

Defensive was a little bit better in 2010 for the Penguins, as Sergei Gonchar managed pick up some of his form, but an injury did sideline him for a little too long.  Gonchar finished 6th in blueline scoring with 50 points in 62 games, but that is now back-to-back years with hurtful injuries, especially to hockey pool teams.  Finishing 6th in defense scoring does help his argument to be picked high again, but he is becoming an injury concern. Alex Goligoski had a good 2010, jumping up the rankings thanks to a 37-point season in 69 games.  Goligoski was ranked 32nd among defensemen, up from being 93rd in 2009.  He is definitely developing well.  Kristopher Letang had a down year with only 27 points in 73 games, but I would expect those totals to bounce back.  2010 rental player, Jordan Leopold added some good depth down the stretch, but a concussion hurt him in the playoffs. Leopold will enter free agency with a season of 26 points in 81 games under his belt.

The Penguins got some more excellent goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury in 2010, but it wasn't his best numbers of his career.  Fleury did manage to win 37 games this past season, with only 1 shutout and 1 assist to go with them, picking up 77 points for the pool.  That put Fleury in 12th among all goalies in the pool, down from being 9th in 2009.  I don't think there should be too much concern, as he has seen a lot of hockey in the past couple seasons and now he'll know what he has to do for conditioning in the off-season.  Brent Johnson had a good season as the team's back-up in 2010, picking up 21 points and ranking 44th among all goalies.  He's definitely in the conversation about top back-ups in the pool, for whatever that's worth. 

2011 Season Outlook
You can definitely see the depth down the middle for the Penguins heading into this off-season, but the talent does become somewhat questionable down the wings for the team.  Chris Kunitz will have to be better in 2011 for the team to make a real splash, especially since he is already signed on for next season.  The blueline has some flexibility to it after some restricted free agency and the goaltending should be solid again.  The outlook from looking at the team below has to remain positive, especially since they still have Crosby & Malkin to lead the way.

Sidney CrosbyAlex GoligoskiMarc-Andre Fleury
Evgeni MalkinKris LetangBrent Johnson
Jordan StaalBrooks Orpik
Pascal Dupuis
Chris Kunitz
Tyler Kennedy
Mike Rupp
Craig Adams
Max Talbot
Eric Godard

With 15 players in tow for the 2011 season, the salary cap hit will be very important to the team's flexibility of adding some more help.  Going into the Summer, the team's approximate annual cap number now stands at $45.1 million, which leaves them some room, but they will definitely have to weasel their way through some of their key free agents in order to be big players during the Entry Draft and the Free Agent Frenzy.

Unrestricted free agency should be the biggest concern of the Penguins, but only in some cases.  Of course there were rentals at the Trade Deadline like Alex Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold, both of whom will likely be taken to market on July 1st, while Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin, Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotenko, Mark Eaton and Jay McKee will all have to have some consideration, some more than others. It's a pretty long list of UFA's with only $11 or $12 million left in the budget and we haven't even listed the RFAs that will require new deals in July.

Okay, don't panic.  The RFA list is not very long and doesn't include a lot of the more important players in some of the Penguins' runs, but if they do look to make the team, they'll be taking up valuable cap space.  Ben Lovejoy played the most games in their potential RFAs this past season and that was only a 12-game stint with the team.  He does have some upside to him and he might have a spot thanks to free agency.  Chris Conner and Dustin Jeffrey are the other two key free agents this Summer.

A lot of the best young talent in the Penguins organization has already made the team and likely an impact with the team as well.  They did, however, pick up some good talent from Anaheim in the deal that sent Ryan Whitney out of town, with Eric Tangradi coming the other way.  Tangradi is said to have the same sort of skill set as Chris Kunitz, who is already on the team, so with some spots opening up on the wing, the Penguins may have found some scoring help on the wings for an entry-level contract cap hit.  I would be keeping a keen eye on what the scouts say about his development and how he fares in the preseason with the team.  Otherwise, I think there has to be some lifted eyebrows over the Summer and training camp for anyone to be listed from their top prospects list.

Since we now know who the final four are in the Conference Finals, we now know that the Penguins will be picking 20th in the Entry Draft, thanks to keeping their 1st round draft pick through the Trade Deadline.  I am going to go out and suggest that the Penguins will be looking at defense when they use their pick, much like they did with Simon Despres in the 2009 Draft.  With such talent up front, they can definitely afford to bolster the blueline, unless there isn't anyone with a major presence.

What I had said at this time last year: "The Penguins nucleus has lots to build from, especially when you move past Gonchar and get a year or two more on Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski. Of course, the Penguins are going to be a huge source of fantasy players, no matter who they pick up or lose in the off-season. They have been built well with really good picks. Look for a huge year from Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy in 2010, they'll be huge. Oh yeah, don't forget those other guys as well."

Last year, I kept it pretty simple.  Look for the Penguins in your fantasy draft and you should be fine.  Well, hopefully you didn't gamble too highly on some of these guys, because there was a bit of a drop off in some talent, as we reviewed already.  Kunitz and Kennedy were not very big in 2010 and my outlook for them in 2011 was hurt badly by their numbers.  I don't think I can take too much credit for anything said in last year's blurb, so I will have to make up for it this year.

For 2011, I don't think there is any real need to go wild again.  Crosby should be pretty good again, especially if he continues to shoot the amount he did in 2010.  Malkin will bounce back in 2010, but I wouldn't bet on him beating Crosby in the scoring race.  Some new youth needs to be fused into the line-up, especially since there are a number of spots open, so I would be looking for a new dark horse to turn some heads.  Veteran presence will be a key issue that needs to be addressed in the Summer and if they cannot fill some of those gaps, I suspect that the team might suffer a tad in the win column, hurting Fleury's overall numbers.  There's no question that the Penguins will be in the mix all season, but their Summer will definitely dictate how strong of a force they will be a year from now.

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