Pittsburgh Penguins 2013-14 Season Preview

Sidney Crosby
Sep 16 2013 Pittsburgh PA USA Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby 87 skates on the ice during player introductions against the Detroit Red Wings at the CONSOL Energy Center Charles LeClaire USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a juggernaut in 2013, at least until they were swept by the Boston Bruins in embarrassing fashion. The Pens’ Eastern Conference Finals meltdown revealed glaring holes in their game, but with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way, this team will inevitably bounce back.

Crosby and Malkin’s incomparable talent was on full display in 2013. The masterful duo continues to turn average wingers into superstars, case in point Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Kunitz and Dupuis combined to average a ridiculous 1.875 points per game last season. Meanwhile James Neal and Kris Letang continued to rack up points.

Pittsburgh’s top six got even better with the addition of Jarome Iginla late in the season. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Pens demolished the Ottawa Senators, eliminating the league’s second best regular season defense with 13 goals in Games 4 and 5.

However, things went haywire at the Consol Energy Center on June 1. The red-hot Boston Bruins rolled into Pittsburgh and slammed the Penguins in a 3-0 shutout. Less than a week later, it was all over for Crosby and the Pens. The Bruins held the Penguins seemingly omnipotent offense to just two goals in the entire series. Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Letang were held off the scoresheet entirely.

The Penguins were battered physically throughout the series, and Crosby and Malkin’s inability to find open ice was truly discouraging. The Pens defense was completely non-existent, due in large part to Letang’s shocking lack of defensive awareness. It was stunning to see a team just four years removed from a Stanley Cup championship look so unprepared for playoff hockey.

Of course that description doesn’t even include so-called franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was benched following a 6-4 loss to the Islanders in the opening round. 37-year-old Tomas Vokoun took over for the remainder of postseason. Vokoun was hardly the reason for the Penguins’ implosion, but he didn’t solve the problem.

Fleury will be the major question mark for the Penguins this season. Though the 2003 top pick is just 28-years-old and has already put his name on the Stanley Cup, he is no longer beloved in the Steel City. He wasn’t particularly bad last season, but Pittsburgh’s aggressive style may demand a better last line of defense. If the Penguins continue to lack enthusiasm on defense, Fleury will have to clean up his inconsistent game.

Every once in a while even the best offenses go cold, and the Penguins were simply not equipped for that to happen in 2013. It was apparent that the team needed a steady defensive presence like the one provided in 2009 by Rob Scuderi. Who could be better for such a job than Scuderi himself?

The 34-year-old Scuderi, who left L.A. to re-sign with the Pens, was the only significant addition to the team this offseason. GM Ray Shero’s collection of mid-season trade reinforcements have all departed. Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray should be replaced with relative ease. Matt Cooke is also gone. Though his grit may be missed, the controversy that follows him will not be.

21-year-old Beau Bennett looked very strong in limited 2013 action, and a breakout year from the winger could be imminent if he lines up next to Evgeni Malkin. In addition, Pittsburgh’s deep group of defensive prospects will inevitably produce a gem soon. 2009 first rounder Simon Despres will build upon a strong rookie year at the NHL level in 2013-14. Meanwhile high-upside prospects Derick Pouliot, Olli Maata and Scott Harrington will work towards potential 2014 debuts.

Based on their ending to the 2013 season, Pittsburgh’s outlook this year might seem bleak. However, it’s quite the opposite. The Penguins are arguably the most talented team to take the NHL ice since Gretzky’s Oilers. They are just incomplete. However, their two MVP-candidates can certainly make an incomplete team contend.

The Penguins finished atop the Eastern Conference standings by nine points last season, and there is no reason to think they can’t do the same thing again this year. They are just running into the same problem as the Vancouver Canucks of recent years. They are built to win the Presidents’ Trophy, not the Stanley Cup.

The Penguins’ offense will continue to be a main-stay on the highlight reel, and coach Dan Bylsma‘s lineup will put your fantasy team to shame. It just remains to be seen how much the Pens have learned from the lessons of 2013.

The new Metropolitan Division looks fairly familiar for the Penguins. Alex Ovechkin‘s Capitals are the scariest addition, but the Penguins should still cruise to the division crown.

So long as Crosby and Malkin stay on the ice, the Penguins will be an elite regular season team. That’s the easy part. This is a team that should be challenging for the Cup every year, and it’s still unclear whether or not they can do that in the tight-checking playoffs.

The Penguins actually have sufficient personnel to get the job done. They have a solid mixture of size and speed.  They will just have to adjust their attitude on the ice. A true commitment to defense and a willingness to pay the price would go a long way. Good habits are hard to establish, but the payoff could be enormous for the ultra-gifted Penguins.

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