No team will view the 2011-12 season as a missed opportunity quite like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They entered the postseason as the favorites to claim the Stanley Cup, yet departed the first round of the playoffs with a profound whimper while losing to their most bitter rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, in six games.
So where do the Penguins go from here?
There is good news. For the past two seasons, the Penguins, overwhelmed by a series of injuries to key players, found themselves oddly healthy entering the summer. The best news of all is that Sidney Crosby was largely effective and made it through the final 14 regular season games and six playoff games healthy. He produced a remarkable 37 points in 22 regular-season games and added eight points in the six games against the Flyers.
Having Crosby healthy is a big deal.
Of course, the contract situations pertaining to Crosby and center Jordan Staal are also a big deal. Both players see their current deals expire in the summer of 2013. Penguins general manager Ray Shero is on record as saying that Crosby's contract is the team's most important focus this summer.
What about Staal? Ultimately the Penguins would love to sign the hulking center. He produced nine points in six games against the Flyers and is a favorite of Shero's. Only 23, Staal is emerging as a star.
Problem is, the Penguins figure to have heavy money invested in Crosby again this summer and also have center Evgeni Malkin on their roster. It has long been known that Staal doesn't want to be a "No. 3 center" forever. On many teams, he would be the No. 1 center. His situation will dictate the offseason for the Penguins.
If Staal is traded -- and this is very possible -- the Penguins will want a bounty in return, most likely geared toward team defense. There is no better offensive team in the NHL than a healthy Penguins squad. The numbers are proof, as the team led the NHL in scoring even though Crosby missed most of the season.
However, defense -- particularly the poor work from the defensemen -- was a huge problem in the series loss to the Flyers. The Penguins need to significantly upgrade their defensive play. Trading Staal, arguably their best defensive forward, doesn't help. But if the Penguins could receive a couple of young, strong NHL defensemen, they might make the deal.
With our without Staal, the Penguins will be a contender for many seasons to come. Malkin is 25 and Crosby is 24, so the Penguins' core is young and talented. But the Penguins won't succeed in the playoffs without turning their attention to a more defensive style, and more defensive players who can thrive in such a philosophy.
This figures to be an extremely interesting summer for the Penguins. Stanley Cups are the goal in Pittsburgh, especially with Crosby and Malkin being in their primes. That the Penguins have dropped three consecutive playoff series hasn't been well received by the front office. General manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma don't have any job security concerns, but if the Penguins struggle next season, that could change.
The Penguins produced a number of magical winning streaks, but what they did in January was special. Having just lost six games in a row, and playing without center Sidney Crosby, center Jordan Staal and defenseman Kris Letang, the Penguins had fallen into ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The following day, general manager Ray Shero told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "We're going to make the playoffs." This triggered an eight-game winning streak and the beginning of a brilliant stretch of play from Evgeni Malkin, who produced two hat tricks during the streak on his way to the Art Ross Trophy.
The Penguins' turning point took place right when everything appeared to be perfect. Sidney Crosby returned from his second bout with concussion on March 15 in New York, and the Penguins beat the Rangers that night. Then they destroyed the Devils in New Jersey for their 11th straight win. Something was happening, though. While the Penguins were producing eye-popping offensive numbers, they were also allowing goals at an astonishing rate. They permitted 3.75 goals per game in the regular season following Crosby's return. The Penguins never again found their defensive game, as evidenced by the 30 goals the Flyers scored on them in six playoff games.
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