Penguins hope for improved results in the realigned NHL

For the first time since their re-emergence as Stanley Cup contenders, the Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be overshadowed by the other Pittsburgh professional teams. The combination of the Pirates’ first playoff berth in over 20 years and the Steelers’ abysmal 1–4 start has stolen most of the focus away from Pittsburgh’s hockey franchise.

The surprisingly early start to the season, compared to last year’s lock-out-delayed January start, has most Pittsburghers unaware that the Penguins are already five games into their season.
For better or worse, the Penguins are returning a squad very similar to the one that was embarassingly swept by the Boston Bruins in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

The main losses are the veterans the Penguins acquired last season in trades to push themselves over the edge: Forwards Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, and defenseman Douglas Murray all left via free agency.

Left wing Jussi Jokinen was the one player to stick around after the Pens acquired him. Twenty-one-year-old forward Beau Bennett looks to be the future top-line winger. As alternate captain Evgeni Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby get older, the Penguins hope Bennett can develop and make up for the two’s decreased production. But as of now, he is too inexperienced to play the physical style demanded by the line of Malkin and left wing James Neal.

Expect to see Jokinen start the season, with Bennett jumping up in the depth chart as he gets more comfortable on the ice.

On defense, the Penguins return the same mediocre group of players. In fact, they are even worse off, with top-scoring defenseman Kris Letang out with a lower body injury. With their third-leading point scorer from last season out indefinitely, the Pens could be without some of the offensive firepower that has kept them competitive the last few years in spite of their porous defense and inconsistent goaltending.

Speaking of goaltending, the Penguins still have the same question marks that they have had the past few seasons. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the top regular season goalies the past two seasons, but during the playoffs of those two seasons, his play has been atrocious. Since goaltending is such a mentally challenging position, it will be interesting to see how Fleury bounces back from being benched in last year’s playoffs. It’s even more critical that Fleury be on his game since Tomas Vokoun, the goalie who took over for Fleury, is out for the next 3–6 months with blood clots, leaving Fleury without a veteran backup.

The biggest change to the Penguins comes in the form of the NHL conference realignment. With the 2011 move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and being renamed the Jets, the NHL needed to shuffle up its divisions and conferences. There are still two conferences, the 14-team Western Conference and the 16-team Eastern Conference, but now instead of six five-team divisions, there are only four total divisions, with two in each conference.

This realignment has fixed many years of illogical geographic divisions due to the mass movement of teams from smaller northeastern United States and Canadian cities, down to the Sun Belt ranging from Florida to Texas and Arizona. It is also only a trial run due to unbalanced conferences and divisions, and the threat of relocation by the Phoenix Coyotes and several other southern teams.

This change in divisional format has also affected the playoff system. Each division will have three automatic playoff qualifiers, with two more wild card teams coming from the top two remaining teams in the conference. The second and third seeds from each division will play each other in the first round of the playoffs, and the top seed in each division will play one of the wild card teams, with the overall top seed playing the weaker wild card.

The winners of those two series within each division will play each other for the divisional championship, and the winners of the divisional championships will play each other for the conference championship. The two conference winners will then play for the Stanley Cup.

One of the major criticisms of this system is the impact of division strength in playoff berths and ease. If one division is significantly weaker than another, it will give top teams in that division a much easier road to the conference finals, allowing them to rest their players and have a leg up on the competition.

The Penguins are in the newly formed Metropolitan Division within the Eastern Conference. They are still with all of their old Atlantic Division foes — the New Jersey Devils, both New York teams, and their cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers — but are also adding the Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are moving from the Western Conference.

Even with all the changes in the NHL, the Penguins’ biggest challenges come from within. Since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, the team has only grown and improved. But their biggest foes have been injuries and inconsistent play.

If Crosby and Malkin can stay on the ice, and Fleury can get his head straight and play in the postseason like he has during the regular season, look for another deep playoff run. Otherwise, look for another postseason full of disappointment.