And for good reason.
It was the Pens’ second trip to the finals in two years; their roster featured two of the most dynamic forwards in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (both locked up long term); a superstar defenseman in Sergei Gonchar leading the back end; and a young goaltender on the rise in Marc-Andre Fleury. It looked as though the Penguins were destined for elongated success.
But in 2010 the underdog Montreal Canadiens upset the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, putting an end to the shot of a Stanley Cup repeat.
Going into the 2010-2011 season my thoughts on the Pens are simple – While other teams are getting better, Pittsburgh is stagnant . Sure they have a great 1-2 punch with Crosby and Malkin, but so do other teams. Washington has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Vancouver has the Sedin twins, Toews and Kane are in Chicago and that’s without mentioning the potential 1-2-3-4 punch in Tampa Bay with their edition of Simon Gagne. So I’m failing to realize where the Pens are special.
The loss of Gonchar this past off-season means the Pens have no true offensive quarterback on defense. Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin and Kris Letang will get a shot to prove themselves in that role, but none come close to matching Gonchar’s talent offensively. And on forward the Penguins have no supporting cast for Crosby and Malkin unless Mike Comrie and Chris Kunitz resurge themselves as legitimate offensive contributors like they once were.
And then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who is without a doubt a legitimate NHL starting goaltender, but compared to the numbers of the elite, Fleury seems to be very mediocre.
A big problem for GM Ray Shero – who recently signed a five-year extension with the Penguins – is the future doesn’t bring much room for change in Pittsburgh. With over $51 million allocated to the 13 players signed on with the Pens for 2011-2012 only $8.26 million is left to sign at least nine roster players (that’s just over $900,000 per player). Where are you finding a legitimate supporting cast player for that kind of money?
In a salary cap world, it will be hard for Shero to make any major changes to the Pens roster unless he can dump a cap-heavy salary like Chris Kunitz’s $3.75 million to try and get a legitimate top-six forward, or maybe move Jordan Staal’s $4 million contract to open up some more salary for next year. But Staal’s uniqueness as a penalty kill specialist who can also score 20-plus goals while playing on the third line is hard to come by.
Pittsburgh has their work cut out for them with two other elite Eastern Conference teams (New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers) in their division. Don’t be surprised if the Penguins enter the 2011 playoffs as a lower seed and exit the playoffs at a similar to time to when they did last season.