I know for a fact that I’m not the only hockey fan who has mixed feelings towards the NHL right now, to say the least. There’s no excusing or overlooking three lockouts in eighteen years, especially with the way hockey’s grown recently. It’s more than likely that a number of casual fans, drawn in by things like the Vancouver Olympics and 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, were lost to the lockout.
But enough about that. I’m sure you’re all as sick to death of lockout talk as I am. What I’m trying to get at is that despite my less than friendly feelings towards the NHL itself, I’m still eager to watch Penguins games again. It’s pointless to deny it. Minor league and college hockey are lots of fun in their own right- I attended a Cornell vs. Dartmouth double OT playoff game in college and it was easily one of the top three live hockey experiences of my life- but they didn’t completely prevent me from missing NHL hockey. My feelings about the league aside, I’m happy it’s back. Even with the shortened season, there is still plenty for Pens fans to look forward to in 2013. In no particular order, these are five things that have me excited about the upcoming Penguins season:
5. Sidney Crosby flying out of the gates
It’s no secret at this point that however much any of us love hockey, Sidney Crosby loves it more. Whatever your feelings about the guy, you can’t deny that he eats, sleeps, and breathes hockey, loves it body and soul. And he hasn’t played the game he loves so much since last April. He never went to the KHL or anywhere else in Europe to play. For nine long, excruciating months, he’s been held back. He has to be chomping at the bit right now.
Remember when he made his big return from the Winter Classic concussion? Remember how amped up he was just to be out there playing and how he pretty much exploded every time his skates touched the ice?
I fully expect to see that more than once this year. I’m not guaranteeing a four-point night from him every night, but we all know that Crosby is going to go absolutely insane on opening day. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re playing the Flyers too.) As a Pens fan, how can you not be excited about that prospect?
4. Paul Martin
“Nervous” would probably be a better adjective than “excited” here, but bear with me on this one. Paul Martin was the designated defensive whipping boy for Pens fans all last season and offseason. It’s both unfair and an oversimplification to put the full blame for the Penguins defensive woes on his shoulders. But if you’re a would-be Olympian (remember that Martin would’ve been on the 2010 silver medal U.S. team if he hadn’t been hurt) clearing checks for $5 million a year, you have to play better than Martin did last season. He generated too many turnovers and was out of position far too often. Simply put, he looked lost out there more often than not.
So why am I excited to see him play this year? I look forward to seeing if he can up his game and have a bounce-back season. I’d love to see him step up and silence fan criticism of his play, a la James Neal. This would be the ideal year to do so too, given that the Pens still have a lot of question marks on defense and haven’t really done anything to address them. On paper, it’s easy to think that being paired with Brooks Orpik- arguably Pittsburgh’s only pure defensive defenseman since Zbynek Michalek was traded- will help his game (though Orpik didn’t have the greatest season himself last year). But will it actually translate to results on the ice or just be a short-lived experiment? Who knows. But I’m excited to find out. No matter who his defensive partner is, I’m rooting for Paul Martin to have a bounce-back season.
3. How the Pens will stack up against the rest of the Atlantic/top Eastern Conference Teams
This will be especially crucial, since the Pens play only Eastern Conference teams this year. This was the final standings of the top eight in the East last year:
1. New York Rangers
2. Boston Bruins
3. Florida Panthers
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Washington Capitals
8. Ottawa Senators
This season the Penguins play the Rangers five times, the Bruins, Panthers, Capitals, and Senators three times, and the Flyers and Devils four times. That means 25 of their 48 games are against playoff teams from last year. Though the top eight will almost certainly have a different look from last year, this is worth noting because the Penguins did have some trouble against the other Atlantic Division playoff teams. They finished 13-9-1 within the Atlantic… but four of those wins came against the bottom-dwelling Islanders. If you take away their six games against the Isles, their division record was 9-7-1. (11-11-1 if you count the playoff games against the Flyers.) While interdivision records don’t matter *as* much in the NHL postseason format as compared to leagues like the NFL, that is troubling to look at when three of your four division rivals are perpetual playoff teams.
Their record against the other four non-Atlantic playoff teams was a little better, a combined 9-6-1. That made for an overall 18-12-2 regular season record against the other top seven EC teams. Not completely terrible, but not exactly great either.
Obviously, we don’t know what the season holds and it’s almost a guarantee that the EC playoff picture is going to be different this year. I always am eager to see the Penguins play other top teams in the East, especially within the division; it makes for some fantastic hockey games. But looking back at their record from last year has me a little extra jazzed up, since I expect/hope for them to fair better within the division this year.
2. The new arrivals
I was as sad as anyone when the Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel inevitable in a way, especially after he turned down that 10-year deal from Ray Shero. Staal clearly wanted to be at least a second-line center, and he was almost certainly never going to crack the second line as long as Crosby and Malkin are in Pittsburgh. It’s understandable that he’d want to take on a bigger role for his team. As sad as it was to see him go, I applauded Shero with the rest for taking the bull by the horns and at least getting a good value deal for Staal instead of hanging on to him for the last year of his contract and then turning him loose. And when I heard that they obtained Brandon Sutter as a part of the trade, I was even more excited.
Sutter is a solid third-line center. While not as big as Staal, he’s got some size (6’3″, 183 lbs), was one of Carolina’s best penalty killers, and is an excellent two-way player. He had 17 goals and 15 assists last year and seems to average a little more than 30 points a year, and it’s safe to assume that his offensive numbers should increase with Pittsburgh. I was discussing Sutter earlier this week with a former CWGAP colleague of mine who is both a Penguins and Hurricanes fan and I was very encouraged by what she had to say about him. She told me that he is a young guy with an unreal work ethic who isn’t afraid to get physical and is hungry to play for a legitimate contender. Sounds like Dan Bylsma’s kind of player, no? I can see him fitting on the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy very nicely. Early reports out of training camp indicate that Pens fans have very good reason to be enthusiastic about Brandon Sutter.
I’m excited about Tomas Vokoun too. I’d be surprised if there is a Penguins fan out there who isn’t. He’s still good enough to be the number one goalie in another city, and should be one of, if not the best, backup goalie in the league this season. It’s such a load off the mind to have a backup goaltender that you know is capable of stealing a few games a year. Remember how stressed we were whenever Brent Johnson came in last year because he struggled so much? (Poor Johnny. I hope someone gives you a look in camp.) It’s also a huge relief to know that we won’t have to worry about Fleury being overworked again. And having a reliable backup goalie is obviously going to be even more important this year with the shortened schedule and having to squeeze 48 games into 99 days and more back-to-back games than normal. In February, the Pens play 14 games in 27 days. Imagine if they had to rely on Fleury to play every night during that stretch. Scary thought. But this year, the Penguins will be able to give him enough nights off to ensure that he’s rested and refreshed for the playoffs, thanks to the Vokoun signing.
Hell, I’m even a little excited about Tanner Glass. He’s kind of an afterthought but seems like a tough, serviceable enough guy to have on the fourth line.
1. Evgeni Malkin and James Neal reuniting
Okay, I lied when I said these were in no particular order. The first four were in no particular order; I put Malkin and Neal’s chemistry as #1 on this list for a reason. You know you were all thinking it too. I will never get tired of watching those two play together. They have unbelievable chemistry on the ice, always seeming to effortlessly find each other. Malkin’s passing skills and Neal’s nasty wrist shot are a match made in hockey heaven. Last season, a career year for Neal, he and Geno were factoring into roughly 80 to 85% of each other’s points.
Watch that video and try and tell me you aren’t thrilled out of your mind to get to watch these two play together. You can’t do it can you? With Malkin already red-hot after an impressive stint in the KHL (23G, 42A in 37 games, with a league best 1.57 PPG) and Neal spending the off-season with Gary Roberts, you know these two are going to be something special again this season.