Pittsburgh Penguins preview

I may have started making my picks too early.

Last week, I was confident the Pittsburgh Penguins would win the division and the conference, even with the loss of some key forwards, such as Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone. But then the news came out that their top defenceman Sergei Gonchar is out until March with an injury. And their second-best defenceman, Ryan Whitney, is out until for three months.

You think that would be enough to shake my confidence in this team. But no, even with their losses and their injuries, they still have enough talent to win most of their games.

Forwards: Before last season, this was seen as Sidney Crosby’s team. If anything happened to him, the franchise was doomed. But Evgeni Malkin stepped up his game last year when Crosby went down with an injury. Malkin scored 47 goals and had 106 points to lead the Penguins to the division title, and only one point out of first in the conference.

And despite their losses up front, they still have a good young core of players. Jordan Staal is a beast on the ice, and is a great penalty-killer. He’ll pick up a lot of the slack left behind. Matt Cooke is a good fourth-liner that can play on any line if need be. And Petr Sykora should be good for close to 30 goals again.

Defence: Anyone else not worried at all that their top two defencemen are injured? With Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney out, all the pressure falls to the other defencemen, but they should pull through quite well. They won’t be expected to score goals, so they’ll be able to rest when the powerplay in on the ice.

Brooks Orpik is a solid defensive defenceman who will help shut down the other team’s top lines.

Hall Gill’s career was reborn once he was traded to Pittsburgh from the Toronto Maple Leafs last year. Who knew he knew how to play defence?

And young Kris Letang (he’s 21 years old) will get a chance to mature this season.

Darryl Sydor will help with the leadership back there, as he’s been there before and has won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Plus, Gonchar is set to come back a few weeks before the playoffs. So he’s healthy, rested and raring to go during the stretch drive.

Goaltending: It looked like Marc-Andre Fleury’s career was going to be ruined at an early age. He was thrust into a bad situation in Pittsburgh, and he got hammered. A goalie is a special breed of player. Once he loses his confidence, he’s sunk. It was only two years ago where he won 13 games out of 50 and had a goals against of 3.25. But he’s been improving every season. His save percentage has gone up and goals against has gone down every single year since he joined the NHL. He’s now turned into a quality netminder, and he is now seen as one of the on-ice leaders of the team.

Pool picks: Jordan Staal may not be selected in many drafts, thanks to his 28 points last year, but he is worth a late-round draft pick. He was used mostly as a defensive player last season, but may get a chance to play with Evgeni Malkin. If that happens, watch for his point total to go up. Stay away from any player you may be hearing will be playing with Sidney Crosby. Crosby’s linemates change every other game as the coach tries to match lines. Miroslav Satan may sound like he’s going to play with Crosby, but then one day the head coach will think, “Wait, Miroslav Satan? Seriously?” and will then proceed to switch things up.

Miscellaneous:It must play with your mind if you’re a player on a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals, just to see your team almost get dismantled. Gone is Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, Marian Hossa, Adam Hall and Ty Conklin. The hardest thing to replace out of those players is the leadership Roberts brings to the game. But those players had to go, or else the Penguins would not have been able to keep their top superstars. But that’s life in the new NHL.

Expected finish: First in the Atlantic division, first in the Eastern conference

Overall: Even with all the losses, the Penguins will still have a great year. If healthy, Crosby will get about 130 points and 40,000 endorsement deals. Gonchar will come back in time to lead the team to a 13-1-1 record in the last 15 games. And Jordan Staal will break through to prove that he is the best Staal brother in the NHL.

So Pens fans, there’s no need to worry. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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