• So, what does Crosby, the league's first teenage scoring champion, do in Year 3?
Uh, remarkably well. There's no reason not to think Captain Crosby won't be one of the top scorers in the league, as well as lead the Penguins through a solid regular season and be setup for a deep playoff run. Crosby's shown he's the best player in the game in just two years, at the age of 19.
• How does Malkin follow up his rookie-of-the-year campaign?
Malkin 'only' scored 33 goals last year. Given all the chances he had, that quite easily could have been 40-45 with a little luck. He's dangerous on every shift, and I have his linemates pencilled in as a 19 year old Jordan Staal and goal-scoring dyanmo Petr Sykora which sure beats a 18 year old Jordan Staal and the garbageman.
Plus Malkin had to deal with running away from Soviet Russia, leaving his homeland, his native tongue and coming to a totally foreign culture. That's huge. Plus the differences in NHL v. RSL (smaller rinks, more physical, much longer regular season) and it just shows what a great rookie season he really had.
But there's still room for improvement and I think Malkin will continue to develop and improve just fine.
• Will there be a step back for Staal, who showed a maturity well beyond his 18 years last season?
I think that's a fair question. Staal was unexpectedly spectacular, turning in a 29 goal season at just 18 years of age. But he only had 13 assists and admitted the speed of the game was something that he was still adjusting too.
Staal might score less goals this year (say 20-25 goals as a low-end estimate), but if he can muster 25 assists that will show he's picking up the intricacies of the game and become even more of a force.
Between Staal, Crosby and Malkin, if you were to tell me now that one would statistically regress, I would say Staal in a heartbeat.
• Now that veteran backup goalie Thibault has shuffled off to Buffalo, is there enough support in the form of Sabourin or Conklin behind Marc-Andre Fleury?
Fleury won 40 games last year and appeared in 67 games. The Penguins would like to see Fleury improve a little with his overall consistency and focus, but he's showing that he can start 65 games a year. Around the NHL, you'll see some tandem goaltending (Ottawa, Anaheim, Minnesota last year) but mainly, if you have a guy good enough to do so, it's just one guy carrying the mail. Brodeur. Luongo. Lundqvist. Miller. DiPietro.
The only reason really that you have a tandem goaltending situation is because, usually, one or more guy is struggling. The Pens can let Fleury play 65 games or so. He can handle it and they'd be better of for it.
Sabourin will be the #2, and Conklin will be the veteran in Wilkes-Barre. I know the Pens organ-eye-zation is very sweet on Sabourin, they like him and only lost him last year through waivers in a numbers/salary game.
The only way this will be an issue is if, God forbid, Fleury gets injured or struggles mightily.
• How does playing with Stanley Cup expectations change the dynamic in the Penguins' dressing room?
The most worthwhile question. At the beginning of last season, it was just a group of young guys with a lot of talent and no expectations. And they rocked it. The goal last year, all along, was to right the ship and make the playoffs. The Pens, of course, roared into the playoffs, then bowed to a more experienced foe.
At the beginning of this year there's more veteran names to provide quiet leadership, bring toughness and to carry out sturdy roles. This is where your Roberts and Sydor type players shine. The entire core of players--not just the stars but your guys like Armstrong, Talbot, Malone, Whitney, Orpik, etc. got their first taste of the postseason. There's no new surprises now.
First you got to get there, but unlike last year (where I don't believe any preseason publications had the Pens in the playoffs), this year I've seen them as no worse than the 3rd best team in the East, along with Ottawa and NYR. There will be expectations and the weight of that. But Crosby has had that weight on his shoulders for many years, Staal has ice water in his veins and Malkin doesn't even understand half the damn questions, so big deal.
Let's drop the puck already.