Published on August 16th, 2012 | by James Conley0
Penguins 2013 Season Preview: Crosby, Malkin, Neal to Lead Pens’ Forwards
A bad angle goal against Roberto Luongo is all the kindling you need to spark talk of underperformance.
One bad angle goal against Luongo was all it took for James Neal to end talk of his underperformance at the end of the 2011 season. The seemingly innocuous marker opened the scoring on the 2011-12 year and signaled the beginning of Neal’s breakout offensive campaign. It was the first of an 11-goals-in-16-games stretch to open a season in which he began as a genuine offensive question mark and finished as the league’s fourth-leading goal scorer.
Neal’s 1-in-20 performance at the end of the prior year wasn’t the only concern plaguing Pittsburgh’s presumed offensive leaders. Recovery from knee surgery and the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome made Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby unknown assets, respectively, in terms of health and productivity once they would make their returns to the ice.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Pittsburgh’s top scorers heading into the 2011-12 season.
A season which has since erased all doubt.
Though Pittsburgh spent most of 2011-12 like it spent the latter half of the season prior—without Crosby—the emergence of Malkin and Neal as the NHL’s premier scoring duo (helped in no small part by winger Chris Kunitz) more than covered for the captain’s absence.
That kind of top-heavy offense isn’t new to the team. Pittsburgh has fielded three of the game’s best forwards since 2006-07.
Neal’s breakout season means the loss of Jordan Staal won’t rob the team of that distinction.
And the Penguins will need their new big three to continue posting the torrid PPG numbers they achieved last season if they are to keep up with Philadelphia and the New York Rangers in the Atlantic.
The Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line is set in stone and Crosby is reportedly healthy and ready to return to first-line center duties. Whenever hockey returns, Pittsburgh’s top-six should be set to lead a repeat performance as the league’s highest-scoring team.
Vacancies of talent on Crosby’s wings notwithstanding.
Though the Penguins lost 42 goals and 98 points with the departures of Staal and winger Steve Sullivan, having Crosby available for more than a quarter of the year might actually cover the difference—Sid was on pace to score 138 points last season over the course of 82 games.
How good can Pittsburgh’s offense be the next time it takes the ice? It’ll be no small task to replicate last year’s success, but a reasonably healthy campaign from all the big names could mean seeing the most productive offensive attack of the post-Lemieux era.
Evgeni Malkin, C
2011: 75 GP // 50 G // 59 A // plus-18 // 70 PIM // 29 Hits // 12 PPG // 18 PPA // 9 GWG // 339 SOG // 1.45 PPG
First-line center, second-line center. The semantics of the position have never meant so little as they do in Pittsburgh, where the team’s top two pivots have traded turns as the game’s best player for years.
What is known is that wherever he falls on the depth chart, Malkin will be best aided by having Neal and Kunitz on his wings.
Malkin entered last year carrying the baggage of consecutive sub-par seasons and the uncertainty of recovering from major reconstructive knee surgery in March. His offseason reportedly included a renewed focus on hockey and a summer training regimen unlike anything Gino had submitted himself to in his career. But as is often the case in the delightfully homogenized Pittsburgh sports fanscape, the hounds of “enigmatic” were in hot pursuit.
After an early stretch of recovery and only-adequate play, Malkin rediscovered his form.
Malkin’s climb back to the top of the NHL scoring race was aided greatly by Neal and Kunitz, the best regular wingers Malkin has so far played with and the first pair of passable wingers to skate with Gino since Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora in 2007-08. Teamed with a dynamic shooter in Neal and Kunitz’ bulldog brand of forechecking (which often brought him right into the pads of opposing goaltenders), Malkin was finally given a chance to regain the Art Ross form he flashed in the Cup run years.
The results were staggering.
Malkin’s 109 points were most in the NHL, good for his second Art Ross Trophy in four seasons. It was the third time Malkin finished with 100 or more points and in the top-two of NHL scoring. Fifty goals marked a new career-best and placed him second to only Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, and his 1.45 PPG average was the highest of his career. Malkin went on to capture the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in addition to the Art Ross, his best individual season since winning the Art Ross and Conn Smythe in 2009.
Gino finished 12 points ahead of Stamkos and 16 ahead of Claude Giroux in the NHL scoring race. No other player came within 25 points.
It wasn’t just Malkin’s point totals that were impressive, but the sometimes-incalculable command of the ice he imposed on opponents. His ability to skate circles around the offensive zone while protecting the puck was a method culled straight from his time on the larger ice surfaces of the European leagues, a technique the 6’3″ Malkin somehow translated to the tight quarters of NHL rinks. His goals against the Avalanche in November and Tampa Bay in February were two of the finest goals scored by anyone this season. All this, and a newfound knack for scoring in big situations brought his game to a place it never quite existed before.
Malkin’s 20 goals in the third period or overtime were the most in any period of the game for his season, and an 8-for-11 mark in the shootout was an about-face from his previous futility in one-on-one scoring opportunities.
Clutch. Malkin now has it, and if his game continues to improve as it did a year ago, a second Hart Trophy won’t be far behind.
Sidney Crosby, C
2011: 22 GP // 8 G // 29 A // plus-15 // 14 PIM // 11 Hits // 2 PPG // 9 PPA // 3 GWG // 75 SOG // 1.68 PPG
If the seemingly-inevitable NHL lockout carries on until the Winter Classic—a ratings and revenue gravy train the league would be unwise to surrender—it will have been two calendar years since Crosby last played hockey with any sort of normalcy.
That’s exactly ten fewer years than Crosby is now under contract with the Penguins. Eligible to be re-signed on July 1, the announcement of Crosby’s extension came days before the ink was allowed to dry on the new contract. The 12-year, $104.4 million deal is an exercise in selflessness and superstition. Made available to an open market that routinely handed salary floor-inflated deals to middling talent, Crosby could have doubled his annual salary with any one of the 29 other NHL clubs.
Had he gone to the Flyers, Crosby might have doubled his 12-year term as well.
The deal, like his current one, pays the Kid an AAV of $8.7 million. Though the total term and length of the deal place Sid’s among the ten-richest NHL contracts ever, his paycheck relative to production is an all-time bargain.
So Crosby is now a Penguin for life, the inevitable next step in a career path that bears an uncanny semblance to that of his mentor and boss, Mario Lemieux. The Penguins are hoping that the next we’ve-seen-this-before step is a return to dominance following extended flirtations with injured reserve.
Pittsburgh got a taste of life with Sid late last year. Crosby’s second return from LTIR saw him play the final 22 games of the regular season plus all six contests with the Flyers. Crosby posted 37 points in 22 regular season games and 8 in the Flyers series, point totals that suggested no performance hangover as a result of his 16-month battle with post-concussion syndrome.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, Crosby’s return coincided with an interruption of game planning inside the offices of CONSOL Energy Center. While the Penguins scored nearly five goals per game once Crosby returned, their team defense took an equal turn in the opposite direction, surrendering three and four goals per game on a regular basis.
How much did the combined numbers of Crosby, Malkin and Neal account for the Pens’ totals in 2011?
227 of 743 points // 31 %
98 of 273 goals // 36 %
32 of 57 PP goals // 56 %
75 of 165 PP points // 45 %
743 of 2779 SOG // 27 %
16 of 42 GWG // 38 %
3 of 32 Skaters
Though Pittsburgh outscored many of its opponents down the stretch of the regular season, their unbalanced focus on offensive play was exposed in the postseason, when they allowed 30 goals to the Flyers in just six games.
Adding an all-world talent to any roster should never create havoc. In Pittsburgh’s case, the love affair with goal scoring became too great.
Crosby, for his part, needs only to continue adding offense as he has through parts of the last three seasons. When healthy, there may be no player as productive in the game. Even Malkin’s 2011-12 MVP season came up .20 PPG shy of Crosby’s all-time pace set through the first 40 games of the 2010-11 year.
There is nothing to suggest Malkin will struggle in the coming year as he did during Crosby’s rampage in 2010. If both players find the MVP-level forms they’ve flashed over the last few years, a top-heavy offense which runs through its top centers may be more than enough to ensure a fourth-straight 100-plus point season in Pittsburgh.
James Neal, RW
2011: 80 GP // 40 G // 41 A // plus-6 // 87 PIM // 108 Hits // 18 PPG // 12 PPA // 4 GWG // 329 SOG // 1.01 PPG
If Neal’s season-opening goal against the Canucks was a proclamation of things to come, how might the 24-year-old’s first full season with the Penguins forecast his value over the next six seasons?
Penguins General Manager Ray Shero bet high on that potential, signing Neal to a 6-year, $30 million contract in February nearly one year to the day after he and D Matt Niskanen came to the Pens in the deal that sent D Alex Goligoski to Dallas. Neal’s extension, like so many deals Shero has been able to swing, is a bargain. Neal will start next season outside the top-50 AAV contracts in the NHL despite finishing fourth in goals and seventh in points a year ago.
That’s the kind of productivity fans imagine when crafting the ideal winger for Crosby and Malkin at a cap hit that allows Shero to make such players a reality.
Neal wasn’t exactly a man alone in Dallas, where forwards Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn comprised an excellent collection of top-six talent. However, pairing the young winger with a revitalized Evgeni Malkin seemed to bring out the best in both players.
Neal set career-highs in nearly all offensive categories last season, including games (80), goals (40), assists (41), points (81), penalty minutes (87), power play goals (18), power play points (30), shots on goal (329) and game-winning goals (4). Most of his numbers ranked second on the team to only Malkin, and Neal finished in the top-ten of the NHL in goals (4th), shots on goal (2nd), power play goals (1st) and points (7th).
Neal’s numbers were excellent last year. With contract certainty in place and one of two all-world centers feeding him passes at even strength and on the power play, Neal is poised to make another offensive splash in just the first season of his six-year contract.
The first of six years in which Penguins fans will have one fewer scoring winger to worry about.
Image clydeorama @ flickr