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Penguins 2011 Training Camp Outlook

Friday, 09.16.2011 / 6:00 AM / Features
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Penguins 2011 Training Camp Outlook
Every NHL season has a story.

Every year fills the fans’ hearts with a smorgasbord of emotions: highs and lows; triumphs and failures; successes and pains; and everything in between.

Every story is unique, equipped with a different cast of characters and all new exciting plot twists.

The Penguins’ 2011-12 season story has yet to be written. But as 55 players descend upon CONSOL Energy Center Friday morning to report for training camp, there is a prologue.

Sidney Crosby’s status entering camp remains uncertain, due to the concussion he suffered in early January. He said it is “likely” that he will play this season, but no one knows when that will occur. The team has made one thing certain, Crosby will not return until he is fully healthy and ready.

Evgeni Malkin hasn’t played a game since Feb. 4 after tearing ligaments in his right knee. However, Malkin has undergone an intensive rehab and conditioning program over the summer. The Russian talent enters training camp with renewed energy and commitment.

Jordan Staal will lace up his skates for the team’s first practice on Saturday. That’s something the 23-year-old center couldn’t do last year as he recovered from an infection in his foot. Coupled with a broken with a broken hand, he missed the first 39 games of the season. But this year, Staal is fully healed and ready to get started.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is looking to build on his NHL MVP-caliber season in 2010-11. With the team’s top three stars missing a combined 119 games (Crosby, 41 games; Malkin, 39; Staal, 39), Fleury shouldered the heavy burden and carried the team for half the year. “Flower” finished the season with a 36-20-5 record, 2.32 goals-against average and .918 save percentage en route to being named team MVP.

The Penguins roster underwent some changes over the summer with the departures of Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Chris Conner, Mike Comrie, Eric Godard and Alex Kovalev and the acquisitions of Steve Sullivan, Alexandre Picard, Steve MacIntyre, Jason Williams and Richard Park.

With the Penguins new additions and burgeoning young prospects, the team is stacked with depth at forward and defense. Competition should be pretty fierce for the next few weeks of camp. Fifty-five players will be fighting for 23 spots and the right to wear the Penguins sweater when the team opens the regular season at defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Oct. 6.

There are many questions entering this season. And the answers will come as the year unfolds and the pages turn.

Training camp is the first chapter of the Penguins’ 2011-12 season. Currently this season is a blank page. It is up to the Penguins to write the story. The pen is in their hands.

The time has come to make the first blemish on the empty pages.

The www.PittsburghPenguins.com staff has provided a more in-depth look at the top storylines heading into this year's camp. Click on any of the bullet points below to be taken to that specific storyline, or simply scroll down to read them all.


FIERCE COMPETITION



Mark Letestu (Getty Images)
No matter what’s happened in their careers to date, every player on the Penguins’ 2011 training camp roster reports to CONSOL Energy Center on Friday morning with a clean slate.

Whether it’s a newcomer trying to prove himself to his new coaches and teammates, a top prospect trying to crack the opening-night roster for the first time or an NHL veteran battling to climb from the fourth line to the first line, they all have something to fight for.

Head coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t have it any other way, as that fierce competitiveness brings out the best in everyone. And it’s going to exist everywhere, thanks to the depth that exists at every position.

“I love the competition all over the place,” he said. “There is competition within our lineup and our lines, defensive pairings. There is good competition with our team. That will be established.”

Bylsma is excited to see how the Penguins’ newcomers – Steve Sullivan, Richard Park, Jason Williams, Steve MacIntyre and Alexandre Picard – gel with the organization and its philosophies.

Bylsma is also looking forward to seeing what familiar faces might surprise him, as every year players show up armed with summers of intense training and a motivation to seize their opportunities and make their respective cases.

“Mark Letestu and Chris Conner were both guys that weren’t in the plans at this time last year and ended up playing significant roles on our team,” Bylsma said.

“Plans are good, but something will happen at camp. There might be an injury. Someone is going to get an opportunity. Competition for those spots, having quality people to fill them is something that we have. It will happen. It’s how it works.”



CROSBY'S STATUS



The biggest question entering the 2011-12 season for the Penguins is the status of the team’s captain.

Sidney Crosby (Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby continues to recover from the effects of a concussion, suffered in early January. Doctors expect Crosby to make a full recovery and enjoy a “long, fruitful NHL career.” However, when he can return to the ice is still unknown.

Crosby stated optimistically that he is “likely” play this season.

Dr. Michael Collins, director of UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, when asked if he expects Crosby to return for the start of the regular season Oct. 6 in Vancouver, responded: “I have no earthly idea.”

The team has stated vociferously that it will not rush Crosby’s recovery. He won’t return to game action until he is “100 percent normal.” 

If Crosby isn’t ready to go by the start of the regular season, don’t expect the Penguins to panic. After all, the team played half of last season without the 24-year-old phenomenon (not to mention 78 games without Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal combined).

Crosby’s status should become clearer as he progresses and the days pass. In the meantime, it will be business as usual for the rest of the Penguins.



MOTIVATED MALKIN



Evgeni Malkin (Getty Images)
Most NHL players don’t like long summers, but Evgeni Malkin took full advantage of the Penguins’ lengthy offseason to work his way back to peak form after his 2010-11 campaign was cut short due to injury.

Malkin suffered ligament damage in his right knee in a collision with Buffalo’s Tyler Myers on Feb. 4, which sidelined the gifted Russian center for the remainder of the season and playoffs.

A motivated Malkin pushed himself as hard as he could during an intensive rehabilitation process, saying earlier this summer he expected to be 100 percent healthy for the start of training camp and did not expect to be limited whatsoever.

But while Malkin worked tirelessly towards regaining full health this summer, he also diligently improved his overall strength and conditioning to report to camp in the best shape of his life.

The thought of what Malkin is capable in such prime form is an exciting one. After all, at just 25 years old, the gifted Russian center has already posted 418 points through 352 career games, won a scoring title and been named playoff MVP during the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run.

“I have known ‘Geno’ for five years now and I have never seen him this committed to getting healthier and wanting to do well,” said Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar, who trained Malkin for two weeks in Russia.

He’s chomping at the bit to step up and be a dynamic force for the Penguins this season.

“I want to play my best for the team,” Malkin said. “I want to improve my skating, strengthen both my legs and become a faster skater. I want to be better for the whole year.”

RELATED:
Motivated Malkin Pushing Himself in Summer Workouts
From Russia with Love: Part 6
From Russia with Love: Part 5
From Russia with Love: Part 4
From Russia with Love: Part 3
From Russia with Love: Part 2
From Russia with Love: Part 1
Malkin Stickhandling
Malkin Bungee Work



PLAYER TO WATCH



James Neal (Getty Images)
Now that he’s recovered from the shock of his first trade and feels comfortable in his new surroundings, forward James Neal is looking forward to putting together a strong season for the Penguins.

Neal, who was traded to Pittsburgh from Dallas on Feb. 23, has produced 20-plus goals in each of his three NHL seasons – and the young winger hopes to take his production to the next level within a system that suits his style of play and a strong group of forwards to support him.

“I’ve never scored 30 goals in the league, so it’s something to strive for,” he said. “You just want to better yourself every year. You want to get stronger every year and do all the right things. Hopefully I’ll give myself a chance to do that this year.”

Neal, 24, should see time flanking either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin at some point this season. It will be an intriguing prospect to see what the talented 6-foot-2, 208-pound power forward can do paired with either of those incredibly gifted players.

RELATED:
Neal's Increased Comfort Level Has Him Ready for Fresh Start
Neal the Burn 



DEFENSIVE DEPTH



One of the Penguins’ biggest strengths heading into training camp is their defense – a group that’s now comfortable with the system and with each other.

Alexandre Picard (Getty Images)
Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have now spent a full year within the organization, meaning they know what to expect and what’s expected of them. They’ll be looking to build off the chemistry they established being paired together since last November.

Martin, Michalek, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang compose a formidable top four – one of the league’s best. So with the core of the Penguins defense essentially set, the battle for a spot in the rotation will be a dogfight.

Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland rounded out the Penguins’ back end last season and will be looking to do so again this year. But newcomer Alexandre Picard has 236 games of NHL experience to his name and has spent the last three seasons in a similar role as Lovejoy and Engelland.

To add to the competition, the Penguins have a crop of talented blueliners within their system that are hoping this is the year they make their mark with the parent club.

Simon Despres will be a player to watch, as he was the final roster cut at last year’s training camp. He returned to his junior team and proceeded to have an outstanding season, winning the Memorial Cup and being named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Best Defenseman.

Despres, 20, is no longer eligible to return to juniors, so the Penguins’ 2009 first-round pick must make the jump to the pros this season.

Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, two Pittsburgh draft picks who have spent the last two seasons with the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate, have also made great strides since making the jump to the American Hockey League. They’ll be looking to make the coaches’ decisions as tough as possible.



ENCORE PERFORMANCES



Tyler Kennedy (Getty Images)
With an influx of injuries to the Penguins’ forward lineup last season, the remaining healthy players had to step up and shoulder the burden by undertaking bigger roles than they ever had before.

Two players who starred in the face of adversity were forward Tyler Kennedy and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Kennedy made the most of his increased minutes and responsibilities, responding with an energetic, offensive punch that saw him set new career highs in games played (80), goals (21), assists (24), points (45) and power-play goals (7).

No matter what role Kennedy fills for the team this season, the Penguins will be looking for the 25-year-old winger to continue making significant strides offensively.

“It’s a considerable step up for Tyler and his position,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He started last two seasons in training camp on a second line and that’s a top-six forward role. It looks like that’s where he’s moved himself to.”

The team will also be counting on Fleury to continue his Hart Trophy-caliber play into this next season.

After a rocky start to the 2010-11 campaign, Fleury rebounded and put together his most consistent NHL season yet, finishing with 36 wins, a .918 save percentage and a new career-best goals-against average (2.32).

Fleury, 26, ended up being the Penguins’ rock through all of the highs and lows they faced last season. They’ll be looking for their star netminder to continue that consistency between the pipes from the start of the 2011-12 campaign.



STAAL OR NOTHING



At this time last year, Jordan Staal was just a bystander. He broke his ironman streak (302 consecutive games played; second-longest in term history) when he was forced to miss all of training camp and the beginning of the regular season with a lingering foot injury.

Jordan Staal (Getty Images)
But Staal didn’t encounter any such setbacks this summer, meaning he’s fully healthy and feeling excellent entering this year’s training camp.

It’s more important than ever for Staal to be in top shape entering camp, as the strong two-way centerman logged monster minutes last season in a variety of roles for the Penguins.

Staal, who was named one of the Penguins' alternate captains last October, emerged as a bonafide team leader both on and off the ice after making his season debut on Jan. 1.

Leadership is something the Penguins staff has discussed with the young but mature Staal, who is in his sixth NHL season despite turning 23 on Sep. 10, and they’ll be looking for him to build off that this year.

RELATED:
Staal Shoulders Full Workload this Summer



Authors: Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo
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