As the NHL lockout went on I think most people's worst fears were really starting to become reality: the NHL wasn't going to happen in 2012-13 and a full season, if not more, was going to be lost. Thankfully that was not the case and while this season is not going to be anywhere near the same as if the season would have went off without a hitch but hey you can't really complain. Well, you can but you can't really say that you aren't absolutely stoked for the season to start on Saturday.
All that being said the season is going to boil down to a 48 game season which teams will go from managing a marathon to trying to win a sprint. It will be brutally intense where almost every single team will be in the race for most of the season and that is going to draw a lot more attention from a lot more teams than it normally would at this juncture in time.
What does it all mean though. More specifically what does this all mean for the Penguins. The Penguins have had very different starts to the season in the past five years and at some points they would have been out of the playoffs after 48 games (2009) and at other times they would be on a hot streak as they were last season when they were 27-17-4 and one of the best teams in the league.
Timo Seppa of Hockey Prospectus did a great article for ESPN (Insiders only) that broke down what teams would have made the playoffs if it was only a 48 game season. It was a pretty outstanding article that showed that since the 2005-06 season five different teams that made the conference finals would not have made the playoffs if they only counted the first 48 games of the season. Interesting to note that if there was only a 48 game schedule in the 2008-09 season that neither of the Eastern Conference finalists would have even made the playoffs and if you remember that year the Penguins defeated the Hurricanes then moved on to win the Stanley Cup. The teams that would have made it ahead of them? The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres. Hell, even the Atlanta Thrashers (yes, they really did exist) would have made the playoffs in the 2005-06 season if it were only 48 games.
Well, back to the Penguins. Right now a lot of people are pointing to the Penguins as the favorite to come out of the East and they are odds on favorites (according to Vegas) of winning the Stanley Cup again. But what goes into that? What can we expect from the Penguins? What crazy things can happen in a shortened season?
What can happen in half a season? Well, the Pittsburgh Pirates would most likely be coming off back-to-back playoff appearances if MLB only played half of their games so literally anything can happen. Going off that half season spurt here are the Penguins records through the first 48 games for the last seven seasons:
As you can see with the exception of two seasons the Penguins have had some pretty good starts of the year and while I didn't take the time to go back and look where they stood in the standings in that time they most certainly would have been in the playoffs in the other five season which is all you need to do in the shortened season.
So what do the Penguins need to do in order to get off to a fast start this season? Well I don't think there is really any right or wrong answer to that question because when it comes down to it the Penguins need to get on the ice and win. They have one of the most talented teams in the league and in the short term talent is most likely going to win out. That being said here are a few things that I think will have to take place for the Penguins to not only make it to the playoffs but to get one of the top seeds in the East:
1) Shore up the defensive end. It is no secret that last season was lost because the Penguins had a really hard time keeping the puck out of the net. They only finished in the middle of the pack during the regular season but in the playoffs they were just awful. They gave up 30 goal in six games to the Flyers and gave up 36 goals over the last nine games. That isn't going to cut it and the Penguins know it. This season the Penguins are going to carry eight defensemen on the roster that will include Kris Letang, Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik. Last season Martin was terrible and Orpik wasn't too far behind. Letang had a hard time staying healthy and Lovejoy and Engelland were good for spurts but couldn't be consistent which led to some shaky play. This season everyone is going to have to be better. Bortuzzo is an interesting player since he can be a stay at home guy that won't gain a lot of attention and Simon Despres will need to get some seasoning and there will certainly be bumps in that road so that furthers the necessity for the veterans to step up and play better than last year.
2) Along with the defense, the goaltenders are going to have to be a lot better than they were last season. Marc Andre Fleury is the team's number one but maybe the best decision of the offseason was General Manager Ray Shero going out and getting Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals for a late round pick. The one thing that we have learned about MAF is that while he can be a dependable starting goaltender you are not going to be able to overwork him. In the Stanley Cup winning season MAF played in 62 games but in the three seasons after, all early exits from the playoffs, he has played in 67, 65, and 67 games. All of those post seasons he has been less than stellar and while four or five games might not seem like a lot what does it hurt to bring in a solid backup goaltender to both push MAF and give him a few more days off? Vokoun has been a really solid goaltender throughout his career and holds a career 2.55 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Last year, before tearing his groin, he played in 48 games and posted a 2.51 GAA and a .917 save percentage. The year before with the Panthers he played in 57 games and had a 2.55 GAA and a .922 save percentage. Last season the Penguins were killed by the play of Brent Johnson which forced the Penguins to overuse MAF and that was a part into why he probably had no gas left. Sure, guys like Martin Brodeaur can play 70+ games in a season but not every goaltender can do that and I don't think that is something MAF can do. Getting Vokoun and having a solid goaltending tandem is going to be huge in a condensed schedule.
3) Manage the schedule. Maybe the biggest trick to this 48 games in 99 day schedule is going to be how the coaching staff treats the workload that is going to be put on the players. The team plays five back-to-back games and they are nearly playing on an every other night situation. Sure, the travel is going to be shorter but playing every other night is going to take a toll on the bodies and it is going to be up to Dan Bylsma to give the guys the rest on those off days and up to the conditioning staff to know how far to push each individual player throughout the season. Managing the goaltenders will also be huge. Disco has already said that Vokoun is going to get anywhere between 15-20 starts this season which would give MAF about 33-38 starts. I think that fits.
4) The offense just needs to do what it has always done. It is no secret that the Penguins offense is one of the best in the league. You could argue that they have two of the best players in the entire world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and while other teams can boast talented lineups. Crosby has only played a handful of games in the last two season and Malkin has just been a freak of nature between the NHL and Russia. Add in 40 goal scorer James Neal and gritty forward Chris Kunitz and the Penguins can be every bit as good as the team that averaged 3.33 goals per game last year which was best in the league. There isn't anything special I need to say about the offense, they just need to go out and do what they do.
5) Scoring depth. If there was one thing that the Penguins had last year that they struggled with a little in the past it was big time scoring depth. While they had the NHL scoring champion in Malkin and Crosby score 37 points in 22 games and Neal find the net 40 times they were a much deeper team than that. Matt Cooke went from getting double-digit game suspensions to finding the back of the net 19 times with Pascal Dupuis scoring 25 goals and totaling 59 points. Kunitz was ridiculed for not being able to play up to his contract but put up the third most points on the team with 61 that included 26 goals. So, as you can see the Penguins were much more than just a top heavy team they had five players score 25 or more goals. Get that kind of secondary production this year and the Penguins are going to be in good shape.
6) Trusting Brandon Sutter. The loss of Jordan Staal is something that a lot of people were worried about. Staal was one of the 25 goal scorers last season and the strides he made on his defensive game and the contributions he made on the penalty kill. Sutter isn't going to be Staal and people shouldn't expect him to be. From what we saw Sutter can be very close to him and he can fill in just nicely on the third line with Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. If you watched the Black/White game you had to come away just thrilled with what Sutter brings to the table. I don't think you are going to see him as a huge scoring guy but he has a really nice all-around game and it wouldn't shock me if he was a 20 goal guy in a full 82 game season.
7) Special teams. While the Penguins can get by will solid play against some of the weaker teams in the conference they are going to need to be at the top of their game when they play the likes of the Capitals, Rangers, and Flyers. That includes the power play and the penalty kill. As we saw against the Flyers if you penalty kill is going to be out to lunch then you have close to zero chance of winning games. The penalty kill was good for much of the year but was exposed in a big way down the stretch and the power play just never gave you the feeling that it was reliable. The Penguins have tinkered with the power play a lot over the years and will work with Neal at the one point in a "flanker" position with Crosby and Malkin also joining him. No idea what to expect but if the special teams can play up to par then the Penguins will be in good shape.
The Penguins have a lot to be happy about as I talked about before. They have one of the most talented rosters in the entire league and they have a nice mix of veterans and youngsters to help get them through the grueling schedule that they are about to begin on Saturday. I touched on seven things above but there are obviously more things that will be taken into account when the season rolls around and the standings start to take shape but those are the things that I am going to be looking at early and often as the season unfolds.
The short season is going to bring us a lot of excitement and a lot of heart attacks but one thing is for sure, it is going to be one hell of a ride. Hope you bought enough beer and wine.