COACH Dan Bylsma (4th season)
LAST SEASON 49-25-8 (4th in East); lost in first round to Lightning
KEY ADDITIONS RW Steve Sullivan, D Jason Williams
KEY LOSSES RW Alex Kovalev, C Mike Rupp, C Max Talbot
THE PENGUINS ARE built down the middle, so losing one of their top three centers—Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal—for an extended period of time would be a significant blow. Losing all three, as they did last season, should have been absolutely devastating.
A broken right hand kept Staal sidelined until January, and both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee) missed most of the second half of the season. Yet Pittsburgh still comfortably made the playoffs and even challenged Philadelphia for the division title, a testament to the adaptability of the team.
While the Penguins continue to monitor the progress of Crosby (page 58), they know at least one of their superstars will be healthy on opening night. Malkin, who tore his right ACL and MCL last February, has the sort of game-breaking abilities that separate great players from good ones. And after a seven-month layoff the 25-year-old center looks ready to return to the level at which he was playing in 2008--09, when he won the Art Ross Trophy with a 113-point season. In preseason action Malkin appeared fit and sharp, skating strongly and leading several goal-scoring breakaways.
But Pittsburgh does not live and die by offensive fireworks alone. The Penguins demonstrated that last season, winning tight, defensive games down the stretch behind the superb play of their blueliners, led by Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. Though Pittsburgh scored just 77 goals after the All-Star break (good for only 23rd in the league), the club won 18 of its final 32 games. The Penguins' proven ability to win in a variety of ways—with either their offense or their defense—gives them the advantage on most nights. And after Crosby's eventual return—whenever that may be—Pittsburgh will once again be the team to beat in the East.