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THN.com Blog: Penguins must be favorites to begin 2009-10

With wins over the Rangers and the Islanders, Pittsburgh is off to a 2-0 start to the season. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

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With wins over the Rangers and the Islanders, Pittsburgh is off to a 2-0 start to the season. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

I’m not a big fan of making a Stanley Cup prediction in October – or November, December and January for that matter. So much can change and so much can happen that you’re just setting yourself up for failure and smarmy “I told ya so’s” from the peanut gallery. It’s not really a matter of picking the wrong team; it’s a matter of picking a team at the wrong time.

So I won’t make that kind of bold prediction yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t given it some thought.

Say what you will about the salary cap or the loser-point system, but the parity they provide is a boon to the league. Sure, it would take a miracle for a few teams to be Stanley Cup champions, but think of how many cities are home to legitimate contenders: Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose, Boston, Vancouver, Washington, Chicago – heck, even teams like St. Louis, Dallas and New Jersey have an outside shot.

When I go down the list of all the teams, I try and pick out a reason why I don’t think they’ll win – and everyone has at least one of those. With Philadelphia, it’s a question of Ray Emery’s durability and the team’s discipline; with Vancouver, it’s the secondary scoring threat; in Washington, it’s team defense and consistent goaltending; and with Detroit, it’s the same old goaltending issues – not to mention how the new kids knocked them off the block last summer.

But when it comes down to the Pittsburgh Penguins, I just can’t see anything that stands out. An easy one to point to is the fatigue factor and how two-straight trips to the final – and a lingering Cup hangover – will impact them, but this is a young team that’s hungry to establish themselves as a dynasty. Besides, I’m not convinced that reason holds any water, anyway.

The goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury is no longer a question mark. Once considered shaky because of his costly giveaway against the Americans in the world juniors, Fleury has come a long way from the anxious, nervous-looking kid who tripped running out onto the ice during the final in Detroit in 2008. He’s still flashy and flexible, but now there’s a confidence that gleams while he steals goals and games.

The defense? Sure, the team lost shot-blocker extraordinaire Rob Scuderi, but they replaced him with a much cheaper Jay McKee, who will do the exact same job in front of the net – and probably better. McKee is one of the premiere shot blockers among blueliners in the game and his signing was one of the most underrated of the summer.

Hal Gill’s big body was lost to Montreal and not directly replaced, but a team’s Stanley Cup chances aren’t determined by the presence of a player like Gill, anyway. Alex Goligoski, who gets a full-time role this year, is the opposite of Gill – he will make this offensive team even more threatening and quick from the back end.

Up front, the discussion begins with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Call them whatever names you’d like, but until someone hurls sticks and stones at them, these two are in the conversation for best player in the game and can drive a team through the playoffs. Still don’t believe the hype after two-straight Cup final appearances? Some folks wouldn’t know skill if it dangled around them and lit the lamp with a top-shelfer.

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From there, it turns to Jordan Staal, who I’m convinced will one day be a Selke Trophy winner. His offensive potential has yet to completely present itself, but his defensive awareness is quite apparent. And when it comes to what you want from your third-line center, Staal is pretty much all you could ask for, with the potential and athleticism to become much, much more.

Every championship team needs secondary scoring and when one of Crosby or Malkin is anchoring the “secondary” line, scoring isn’t much of a problem. Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko have proven to be an ample support staff and don’t need to put up big numbers – they just need to be a threat.

For sandpaper, Max Talbot – the first star of the Cup-clinching game in June – provides the heart and soul, while Matt Cooke is never a fun customer to play against, either. This aspect is common among contenders – and, yes, Detroit has it too: Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Kris Draper – and is imperative to spark teams when the chips are down. Pittsburgh’s paperboys have proven to be able to shine on the biggest stages and thrive in the limelight.

Take a look at the point-getters and minute-munchers for this team during last year’s playoffs and tell me exactly what they lost.

It’s funny how the best teams in the league get picked on for being whiny, old, overrated or a figment of the media’s imagination by a few outspoken rival fans. No matter how good these teams are in reality, they’ll never be accepted as legitimate by the most biased among us…even if they are engraved on the Stanley Cup.

So am I picking Pittsburgh to win the Cup in June? No, that’s silly, it’s only October and so much of the story has yet to be written.

But am I declaring them the most logical choice at this juncture, because of all the necessary ingredients and known commodities they have stewing in the pot? Absolutely.

And formulating desperate conspiracy theories or calling their stars names for perceived shortcomings doesn’t change that fact.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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