NHL: 5 stories that can shape the 09-10 season

Post-Gazette hockey writer Dave Molinari offers five things to watch and follow during the 2009-10 season as the Penguins seek to defend their Stanley Cup championship

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1. The mourning after

There are plenty of explanations for why repeating as champions in the NHL is so difficult -- complacency, parity, fatigue, being targeted by every opponent, etc. -- but only one undeniable reality: The Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 and the Penguins in 1991 and 1992 are the only teams in the past two decades to win consecutive Stanley Cups.

What's more, neither the Penguins of Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis nor the Red Wings of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov managed to reach the Cup final a third time, even though the Penguins of 1993 won the Presidents' Trophy as the top team in the regular season and were a popular pick to win a third Cup.

Precisely what sabotages many teams when they're trying for consecutive Cups is a matter of perspective -- parity, fatigue and complacency are popular choices -- and the Penguins not only will have to deal with those, but try to become the first team since Edmonton in 1983-85 to play for the Cup in three consecutive springs.

2. On golden ponds

As if the Penguins didn't have enough issues with which to deal, they figure to be very well-represented at the Olympics in Vancouver. That's great for the players' egos and good for TV ratings locally, but the problems caused by a season that's already long and grueling could be compounded for the guys who will compete for their countries in Vancouver.

Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar are locks to play for Russia, Sidney Crosby might well be selected as Canada's captain and could have Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal to keep him company, while Brooks Orpik looks like a pretty solid bet to make the cut with Team USA.

How those guys handle the physical and emotional demands of the Games -- during and after the actual competition -- could have an impact on how long the Penguins' playoff run next spring lasts.

3. Winging it

The Penguins' collection of centers is unmatched in the NHL, but they don't have the top-shelf goal-scoring winger to exploit the playmaking ability of Crosby and Malkin.

Every winger who will start the season in a top-six role -- that would be Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, and Ruslan Fedotenko -- is capable of chipping in more than 20, but it's unlikely there's a 40-goal man in the group.

Kennedy, pictured above right, merits watching, though. Moving him off the third line, where he fit so nicely with Staal and Matt Cooke, and into void created when Max Talbot needed shoulder surgery was a bit of a gamble, but Kennedy has had a strong preseason and looks as if he wouldn't mind working alongside Malkin on a long-term basis.

4. Cap and trades

General manager Ray Shero, pictured, has shown a deft touch for altering the makeup of his roster as the playoffs approach -- he has brought in Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque, Marian Hossa, Hal Gill, Guerin, Kunitz and Craig Adams at the trade deadline during the past three seasons -- and if he detects a significant void in their lineup as the season winds down, he'll look to address it.


However, the Penguins entered the weekend with a projected 21-man payroll of about $55.2 million, and that's without factoring in any injured players except Talbot. (Players who are hurt count against the cap, except in cases that qualify for long-term relief.) Unless something changes, Shero won't have much wiggle room to bring in an impact player -- and it could be even tougher in 2010-11 if, as expected, the cap ceiling drops.

5. Generation Next

No one should have been shocked when promising young forwards such Eric Tangradi, pictured above, Luca Caputi and Nick Johnson were assigned to the Penguins' farm team in Wilkes-Barre a few days ago; after all, there was no shortage of NHL-caliber veteran forwards, and those guys could be sent to the American Hockey League without clearing waivers.

However, starting the season in the minors doesn't mean a player will finish it there, and it will be interesting to see who earns the first call-up from the parent club. Tangradi and Johnson will try to build on strong performances during camp, while Caputi will try to overcome a lackluster one.

And of course, if management decides it needs someone to fill more of a defensive role up front, the guy who gets the call might well be Dustin Jeffrey, not any of the ones mentioned above.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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