In many ways the 2010-11 season was a nightmare for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it also could have been so much worse.
It's no secret that Pittsburgh's biggest strength is its tremendous depth at the center position. When things are going good -- like during Pittsburgh's championship year of 2009 -- the Pens boast superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top-two center spots and third-liner Jordan Staal could be the No. 1 pivot on more than a few NHL clubs.
Last season, injuries wreaked havoc on that strength as head coach Dan Bylsma had his three best centermen together on the ice for a grand total of two games. Yet, somehow Bylsma's boys managed to tie for third in the league with 106 points.
Still, with only Staal available in the playoffs the Penguins were bounced out by Tampa Bay in the opening round.
There's good news and bad on the centerman front heading into 2011-12. The good is that Malkin and Staal are both ready to start the season. The bad is that it's been nearly nine months since Crosby suffered a concussion and he has still not been cleared for contact.
If Crosby's status were clearer, Pittsburgh would be a clear Stanley Cup favorite, but the uncertainty surrounding Sid the Kid's future makes it difficult to pick the Pens to win it all. Still, Pittsburgh proved last year it could make a playoff run without either Malkin and Crosby, so a postseason trip seems likely, even if the captain's absence extends long into 2011-12.
FORWARDS - Crosby had been sidelined for nearly a month when Malkin suffered a season-ending knee injury in early-February. Pittsburgh stumbled without its stars at first, posting just three wins during a 3-6-4 stretch before closing the season on a 12-4-0 run.
The confidence gained by that impressive stretch could pay off this year, especially for Staal, who proved he can shoulder more of the offensive load when needed.
At 24 years of age, Crosby has already won the Hart, Art Ross, and Rocket Richard Trophies, and before suffering his concussion last year, he was in the midst of possibly his best season ever. In just 41 games, Crosby had amassed 66 points on 32 goals and 34 assists, marking a scoring pace that could have yielded 130-plus points over a full season. Crosby's scoring was so impressive that his half-season of production stood up as the highest total on the team last year.
The frustrating thing for fans (and the NHL) is that there is really no way to gauge when the game's biggest star will be back. Crosby still experiences concussion symptoms at times, and with the recurring nature of head injuries the team is wise to wait until he is at or near 100-percent.
Unlike concussions, Malkin's knee injury was able to be fixed by surgery and rehab. The 2009 Conn Smythe winner possesses a dangerous blend of size, speed and skill and is certainly more than capable of holding down the fort until Crosby gets back. The 25-year-old Russian had 15 goals and 37 points in 43 games last year before the injury.
While his 114 points in 110 regular-season games over the last two years is nothing to sneeze at, Pittsburgh would love for Malkin to return to the dominant form that allowed him to record 149 points in 106 games (regular season and playoffs) during the 2008-09 campaign.
Staal didn't make his season debut last year until the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, but he managed to compile 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 42 games. When both Crosby and Malkin are in the lineup, the 23-year-old Staal is called on to play more of a defensive role, but he also has the ability to turn on the offense.
With a trio of stellar players down the middle, the annual task for Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero is to find suitable wingers to pair with the centermen. Shero hasn't always been successful in finding the right combination. The Penguins have also used Malkin as a winger at times, often to get Crosby and "Geno" on the ice at the same time.
Chris Kunitz was Pittsburgh's best winger in 2010-11 despite playing in just 66 games. He led all Penguin wingers with 23 goals and 48 points and also had a plus-18 rating. Tyler Kennedy wasn't far behind with 21 goals and 45 points over 80 games.
James Neal, meanwhile, was a disappointment for Pittsburgh after the club acquired the winger in a trade with Dallas last February. Neal had 22 goals and 25 assists in 77 combined games with the Stars and Penguins, but the 24- year-old had just six points (1g, 5a) in 20 games with Pittsburgh. Shero and the Pens are expecting much better numbers from Neal over a full season with the club in 2011-12.
The Pens also added a veteran winger through free agency this summer when they added Steve Sullivan to the mix with a one-year deal. The oft-injured 37-year- old recorded 10 goals and 12 assists in just 44 games with Nashville last year. The Ontario native is a proven scorer when healthy, having recorded 682 points (266g, 416a) over 890 career games.
Matt Cooke is back for Pittsburgh after going through a humbling 2010-11 campaign. A valuable penalty killer for the Pens, Cooke was suspended last year for a total of 21 games (regular season and playoffs). Seventeen of those games were for a vicious elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a hit that caused Cooke to be suspended for the entire first round of the playoffs.
Cooke has been labeled as a dirty player by the media and many fans, but Pittsburgh relies on him to be more than a goon. If he can't figure out the difference between physicality and stupidity this year, the Pens will suffer.
DEFENSE - Bylsma usually gets the most out of his forwards in the defensive aspects of the game, making things easier for the club's impressive blue line.
Kris Letang is the main offensive weapon on the blue line and he actually finished second to Crosby on the Penguins with 50 points (8g, 42a). The 24- year-old also led Pittsburgh's D-men in ice time with just over 24 minutes per game.
Paul Martin, who will enter the second season of a five-year, $25 million deal with the Pens in 2011-12, joins Letang to form a formidable top pairing. The 30-year-old Martin is a solid all-around defenseman who recorded 24 points (3g, 21) in his first season in the Steel City.
Like Martin, Zbynek Michalek was signed to a five-year free agent contract last summer and he turned in a solid first year with the Pens, posting five goals and 19 points. He was third among Pittsburgh defensemen with an average of 21 minutes, 50 seconds of ice time per night.
Also back on the Pittsburgh blue line will be Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy. Orpik could eventually skate on the second pairing with Michalek, once he is able to return from offseason abdominal surgery. Niskanen and Lovejoy could fight for minutes while Orpik sits out the start of the season.
GOALTENDING - Nobody stepped up their game more down the stretch last year than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who, despite being just 26 years old, will enter his seventh season as Pittsburgh's No. 1 goaltender in 2011-12.
Fleury had his best statistical season last year, going 36-20-5 with a career- best 2.32 goals-against average. His .918 save percentage was also a personal mark for seasons in which he played in more than 35 games.
Fleury, a Quebec native, is sometimes under-appreciated in Pittsburgh, where Crosby and Malkin draw the most water, but he has often proved that he can be integral to the club's success when he is at the top of his game.
The Penguins also have a solid backup in American netminder Brent Johnson. The 34-year-old went 13-5-3 with a stellar 2.17 GAA and .922 save percentage in 23 games with Pittsburgh last year.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Penguins didn't panic last year despite not having Crosby and Malkin's tremendous talents at their disposal for a huge chunk of the season. That experience should help the club cope if Crosby's concussion problems stretch deep into this season. Even without Sid, the Pens are a threat to win the Atlantic Division and it's not crazy to think that Malkin could lead the club to a Stanley Cup title on his own. Of course, winning it all could be a lot easier if Crosby is able to return and play at a high level.