A year ago, the Penguins talked openly of not only getting into the playoffs, but of contending for the Atlantic Division title. Privately, a few suggested a run at the Stanley Cup wasn't out of the question.
The whole of the 2005-06 Penguins proved to be less than the projected sum of their parts, and it was obvious long before the first snowfall that they would compete for nothing more than another lottery pick in the draft.
This season, after widespread changes on and off the ice, the optimism is tempered, but still present. No one mentions challenging for a Cup, but qualifying for the playoffs is viewed as a realistic objective. And perhaps it is, if a long list of variables breaks in the Penguins' favor.
If the core players stay healthy (Evgeni Malkin already isn't). If young guys such as Colby Armstrong and Ryan Whitney continue to progress. If their goaltending holds up and steals a few points. If the power play produces to its potential, and the penalty-killing improves.
That's a lot to count on, so the Penguins shouldn't start printing playoff tickets anytime soon. But, if they learned anything last season, it's that expectations and predictions are meaningless when games begin.
A position-by-position look at their lineup:
Mr. Crosby, meet Art Ross.
Name should mean "scary good" in Russian.
Who'd guess a Harvard man would play so smart?
Oh, how good he'll be in a few years.
Sweat glands never get time off.
The analysis: Someday, Sidney Crosby and Malkin will form the finest 1-2 punch in the league at center. This year, they might have to settle for just being one of the better ones.
Crosby established his credentials as a mega-talent as a rookie, and Malkin's performance before his left shoulder was dislocated in camp made it clear he should be an impact player from his earliest shifts in the league. Opponents also must dread the day when, after facing lines centered by Crosby and Malkin, they'll be confronted by a unit featuring Jordan Staal -- something of a surprise choice to at least start the season here -- in the middle.
Dominic Moore is reliable defensively, a good penalty-killer, strong on faceoffs and has untapped offensive potential. He's an excellent fit for the third line. Demoting Maxime Talbot, who looked good in the middle of an energy line, was a surprise, possibly a mistake.
Starting to look at home on No. 1 line.
Good just isn't good enough from him.
Must score goals to justify spot on roster.
On injured-reserve until November.
Has lost some hair, but not a step.
Must play tough to earn salary.
Pencil him in for 30 goals.
Happily for Penguins, isn't acting his age.
If Matthew Barnaby were Finnish ...
The analysis: The Penguins only have enough skilled wingers to fill out two forward lines, which is part of the reason Staal figures to go back to his junior team in Peterborough eventually. He not only would benefit from more experience, but should have gifted linemates to take full advantage of his offensive talents.
The lack of depth up front could become a major problem if top-six wingers Nils Ekman, Colby Armstrong, Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi would be removed from the lineup for an extended period, although veteran left winger John LeClair, ticketed for the third line, has looked like he could fill in on the top two units.
LeClair and Jarkko Ruutu complement Moore on a No. 3 line with the potential to generate scoring chances consistently.
Michel Ouellet, who had a lackluster camp, seemed a long shot to survive the roster cuts yesterday, but did. He'll likely have to produce goals regularly if he expects to stay for long because prospects such as Ryan Stone and Daniel Carcillo have more diversified games and look to be NHL-ready.
Toughness should come in handy when he's healthy.
Easy to overlook, underrate.
Could be a true difference-maker.
Prototype defenseman for "new" NHL.
Has gradually slipped down depth chart.
Most punishing hitter on this defense.
Style lets him go unnoticed for weeks at a time.
Hasn't come close to realizing his potential.
The analysis: The Penguins' emphasis on drafting defensemen early in this decade is beginning to pay off, but the key to this defense -- and perhaps, the entire team -- might be veteran Sergei Gonchar.
His first half-season with the Penguins was an unmitigated disaster, but Gonchar benefited from the structured style introduced by coach Michel Therrien and followed up a strong finish last season with a good training camp.
If Gonchar, historically a slow starter, can play well from the start and former first-rounders such as Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik elevate their games, the defense shouldn't be a serious liability, even if it's not a major asset.
Free-agent acquisition Mark Eaton should add some stability, thanks to his penalty-killing and overall defensive work. Noah Welch came on strong at camp and shouldn't waste time house-hunting in Wilkes-Barre.
Time to turn some of that promise into productivity.
Was most impressive goalie throughout camp.
Looking like the guy Penguins traded for in 2005.
The analysis: The Penguins still believe Marc-Andre Fleury can be a franchise goalie, but he hasn't given them much reason to expect it soon. They mishandled him early -- remember, he played for four teams in 2003-04 -- and stunted his development. Now, they must invest the time and effort needed to correct his technical flaws if they expect him to realize his enormous promise.
Jocelyn Thibault, acquired from Chicago in 2005 to bridge the gap between then and the Fleury era, was one of the most pleasant surprises of camp. He showed no lingering effects of hip surgery last year and, if Fleury stumbles, should be able to stop enough pucks to give the Penguins a chance to be competitive most nights.
Although Dany Sabourin was penciled in for the minors when camp opened, his strong preseason play forced management to keep three goalies, at least for now. That's not a beneficial set-up for anyone, though, so Sabourin or one of his colleagues might be moving on soon.