2013-14 Season Preview : Pittsburgh Penguins

USA TODAY Sports

Our preview today keeps us in the very weird state of Pennsylvania for a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Every year we hear about how great the Penguins are and how everyone is picking them to win the Stanley Cup. I get it, it's hard to pick against any team that has both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  In 2013, Ray Shero made the most moves at the trade deadline to bulk up for a Cup run.  In the end they got erased by the buzz saw that was the Boston Bruins.  Their potent offense was held to just two total goals in the four game series.  The biggest reason the Penguins have been coming up short the last few seasons is their play on defense and in net.

Do the Pens have what it takes to return to the Stanley Cup Final for first time since winning it all in 2009? I enlisted the help of Jim Rixner from Pensburgh to give us some pointers on the upcoming hockey season in Steel Town.

Many people crowned the Penguins Stanley Cup champions after the trading deadline, but it all fell apart in the Eastern Conference Finals, when the high powered Pens offense disappeared. What exactly happened?

A series of frustration, poor decisions, bad luck and a good opponent all kept compounding in the Eastern Conference finals for the Penguins. Down just 1-0 after two periods of Game 1, Sidney Crosby decided it'd be a good idea to bump Boston goalie Tuukka Rask (getting a Zdeno Chara punch to the jaw for his troubles) and then Evgeni Malkin dropped the gloves with Patrice Bergeron. Because the Penguins would benefit from those two stars instigating after-the-whistle stuff (and Malkin earning 5 minutes in the sin bin, plus the next whistle, so even more time).

Then the Penguins flat out had a bad early game in Game 2, getting blown out and really searching for answers. They didn't really play THAT bad in Games 3 & 4, which were tight defensive checking games but Rask, Chara and company had all the answers- and got lucky with some posts. And just like that, the series was over. The Penguins lost that series because they let the first two games get away from them with foolish decisions and then, in my opinion, just got really, really unlucky with facing a confident and hot goaltender. So it goes in the NHL playoffs.

The Blackhawks proved, in both their Stanley Cup wins, that solid defense makes your goaltending look much better. Is Marc-Andre Fleury a product of a subpar defense in front of him or is he just overrated?

I'm not sure what Fleury's deal is, and truthfully I don't think many do. The Penguins did only have three "top 4" defensemen last season, something they attempted to address by bringing back Rob Scuderi. Marc-Andre Fleury has been totally awful in the past few playoffs, but he also has a 65-25-4 record with a .914 save % in the past two regular seasons, leading Pittsburgh to very strong seasons up until the brutal collapses.

The hope is that he can address mental/focus issues (the team sent him to a sports pyschologist this summer) and that physically, as evidenced by his solid regular seasons, he will be fine in the future. The Pens also hired Jacques Martin as an assistant coach, and he's one of the game's best defensive minds. Will it all work, is their any hope left? I don't think anyone honestly knows, but with the very thin goaltender market, the Pens don't have much of an option other to hope that Fleury can somehow regain his playoff 2008/2009 form where he had the league's best save percentage (2008) and won the Cup in '09 making several huge saves to help his team get there.

Kris Letang is getting paid a boatload of money over the next 9 seasons. Is he worth it?

If Kris Letang stays healthy, he will be worth the money. Estimates are already coming out that the salary cap could be pushing $80 million in 3-4 years. Given how strong the financial state of the league is, $7.25 million to spend on one of the top defenseman around, in his prime, is not going to be bad. In fact, watch what PK Subban gets long-term and it's likely to start making Letang's contract look good. Skill wise, aside from racking up points at a point/game level recently, Letang can play 26+ minutes a night, drive possession stats and improve the Corsi of any partner on the team that he plays significant minutes with. He's a hell of a player and ought to be in or near Norris consideration over much of the life of his contract, barring injuries.

If you could only keep one of the two, who would it be; Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?

Both are signed through at least 2022, so it's a strictly hypothetical question. But the answer is obviously Sidney Crosby- he's the face of the franchise, the face of the league, and the best player in the sport. Malkin is a dynamic talent and legitimate MVP, but Crosby is a transcendent "once in a generation" type of player who is so valuable on the ice but also to the team for selling tickets, moving merchandise, doing media hits every day in every town. It's no slight against Malkin, but Crosby would trump him, even though the Penguins decision was not to make this decision and do what it took to sign both long-term.

Are you happy with the job Ray Shero has been doing, why or why not?

Shero's done a fine job- he's never afraid to roll the dice for a trade and always does his best to make his team the best version it can be. That's all you can ask of a manager- to put the team in the best position to succeed year in and year out and Shero has done that for the Penguins. He utilizes his resources very well and has made some great trades. Not everything has worked, but his batting average is high enough that it's not hurting.

Do Penguins fans get just as annoyed as the rest of us with the way NBC and Pierre McGuire fawn over them every chance they get?

Honestly, no one gets more annoyed with Pierre McGuire than Penguins fans. It's always "Kristopher" Letang or "Brooks Oar-peck" and on and on with all the little annoyances that all fanbases have to deal with. I never really understood other hockey fan's plights until the Tim Tebow crush hit, now I just how annoying it is when the media clearly falls in love with one player. (And at least Sidney Crosby is an MVP-caliber player and not some backup QB). We're sorry, but there's nothing that we can really do about it. The Pittsburgh Penguins have some of the game's top offensive players, usually play in the highest scoring and most entertaining games and are one of the most marketable teams in the league. It just so happens the cheerleaders that champion the cause behind the microphones are really annoying. But then Mike Milbury will call Crosby and Malkin crackheads or something and it all balances out.

How many Pens fans can we expect to see at Soldier Field in March?

I haven't gotten a good sense of this yet. From the last Winter Classic in Pittsburgh (bad weather, boring 2-1 game as most outdoor games tend to be sloppy and not great...plus the cloud of Crosby's initial head injury) most Penguins fans don't have a good association with outdoor games. But, hockey fans love to travel, Chicago is a great destination city to go to, the game is on a Saturday in a unique setting....So I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few Penguins fans ended up making plans to go, but right now with the game in March and camp just opening, there isn't really a buzz about it yet. I'd definitely expect some Pittsburgh fans, but I doubt the stadium will be over-run by them.

Thanks again to Jim for answering our questions! The Blackhawks will bookend the month of March with games versus the Penguins.  The game on March 1st will be played at Soldier Field and the Hawks return to Pittsburgh on March 30th.

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