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THN.com Blog: Pens poised to take a step back

Petr Sykora and Sidney Crosby will both have to step up to replace the Pens lost offense this season. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

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Petr Sykora and Sidney Crosby will both have to step up to replace the Pens lost offense this season. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

On the surface, the Pittsburgh Penguins have some of the best young talent in the game. On forward, defense and in between the pipes, the Pens have their future covered.

But if there’s one fact everyone knows about Penguins, it’s that those birds just don’t fly.

And that’s why the young Pens will come crashing back to earth after soaring through last season.

I won’t deny the Penguins a playoff spot; they are just too sure-footed to slip that far. But the off-season losses they sustained in terms of offense, grit, consistency and leadership are going to see the Pens fall short of their ultimate goal – revisiting the Stanley Cup final and tasting sweet redemption.

Let’s start with the obvious. Losing Marian Hossa leaves the Pens with an offensive hole. Acquiring the Slovak sniper at the trade deadline was crucial to them advancing as far as they did. Then, when they also bid adieu to hometown boy Ryan Malone, they wiped the mustard from one of their top lines and, together, the depth of scoring they could rely on being at the rink every night. That’s what made the Pens jump from being ‘on the verge’ to being ‘in a surge’ last season.

The signings of Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko are good if all you need is filler, but to counter Hossa’s goals and Malone’s power, the Pens needed a little less squishy-bun inconsistency and a little more established reliability.

Petr Sykora will get his points and his ability to play almost every game is great for a team that can’t afford any more injuries to star players.

But beyond Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and possible bounce-back seasons from Jordan Staal and Sykora feeding off Crosby’s magnificence, I don’t see much that scares me on the Pens up front.

In fact, they are a little soft. One big hit on Malkin and, hey, who knows how long he might shut it down for? After all, he disappeared in the Philadelphia series after being crushed by Mike Richards.

Losing Georges Laraque took out a lot of intimidation and the removal of Gary Roberts means opposing teams won’t be looking over their shoulders – sorry, Gary – anymore. Not to mention what Jarkko Ruutu can do for a team.

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The leadership and threat these three brought is now going to be replaced by, uh, Matt Cooke? Eric Godard? Max Talbot?

Talbot impressed me with his grit last year, but losing those three aforementioned meanies will do nothing to dissuade a plugger from taking a run into Malkin or anyone else.

On the back end, things are a mess to start the season. Sergei Gonchar is out until March and Ryan Whitney will also miss an extended period of time. So, the responsibility of quarterbacking the power play falls to either Kris Letang, rookie Alex Goligoski or Malkin – and let’s not get into the problems that could abound by relying on a forward to play defense on a rush.

Hal Gill was a welcome addition last season and Brooks Orpik is coming into his own as a tough stay-at-home defender, but there are still questions as to whether or not that can continue for a full campaign, especially coming off a late-season run and the injuries to other staples.

Aside from them, Mark Eaton and Goligoski (who has garnered a lot of good press surrounding his move, perhaps permanently, to the big club) are decent defenders in their own right - one for his defense, one for his offense - but not the kind of talent championship caliber teams come to rely on.

I simply don’t see the Penguins being nearly as good of a team this year as the Cup threat they became last season.

If I had to pick where the Pens will end up, I’d rank them third, behind Philadelphia and the Rangers in their division - heck, maybe even fourth behind underrated New Jersey - and possibly as low as sixth or seventh in the East.

This team just doesn’t fly with me.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays.

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