PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Their star centre, injured the season before, remains out as the new season begins — a situation that is creating some nervousness inside their large fan base.
Blessed with arguably as much talent as any NHL team, they should have enough resources to get by until he returns. But nobody truly knows whether that comeback date will be next week, next month or next year.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been through this before.
Twenty years after the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup, they are beginning the 2011-12 season with exactly the same scenario as they did during that championship season. Then, it was Mario Lemieux who was out indefinitely with back problems that developed months before, now it's Sidney Crosby who has a concussion that has sidelined him for nine months.
That 1990-91 season couldn't have turned out much better for the Penguins, despite all the initial apprehension about Lemieux's status.
They can only hope this season turns out nearly as well.
Crosby went through a full training camp without any setbacks or known discomfort, but also without any contact — which he must experience in practice before he is cleared for games. The Penguins have room to believe that will occur soon, but will not hurry a wonderfully gifted player who is trying to make sure that he can resume not only a normal career, but a normal life.
The questions surrounding Crosby's status — namely, when will he return, and how good will he be when he does — could be the NHL's most compelling storyline when the season begins Thursday. The Crosby-less play at reigning Western Conference champion Vancouver that night.
But it isn't the only key issue for the Penguins, who produced 106 points last season despite being without all three of their elite centres — Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal — for a half-season each.
Here are nine more storylines, each of which could determine whether these Penguins have the stuff of champions — like their 2008-09 team — or they are underachievers, like their 2009-10 and 2010-11 team that were bounced early in the playoffs.
2. Is Evgeni Malkin again the player he was while winning the Art Ross and Conn Smythe trophies three seasons ago? Also recovering from a major injury — he tore two right knee ligaments Feb. 4 — Malkin was determined and driven while scoring three goals and getting seven points in four pre-season games.
Coming off two good but not great scoring seasons, Malkin has the look of a player who wants to be included again among the NHL's elite.
"I'm ready," said the 25-year-old Makin, who averaged less than a point per game for the first time in his career last season.
3. Can Matt Cooke rehabilitate his career? An elite penalty killer, Cooke is better known for cheapshot hits that have been criticized by own team. He was suspended for the Penguins' final 17 games last season, counting their first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay, for an elbow-to-head hit on the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. The year before, his blind side hit levelled the Bruins' Marc Savard, giving him a serious concussion. With his Penguins' career in doubt unless he reforms quickly, Cooke insists he can and will eliminate the dirty hits.
"I always went for the big hit," Cooke said. "The problem with that is ... things can go bad."
4. Will Jordan's offence continue to stall? The Penguins were certain they had a longtime 30-goal scorer when Jordan Staal produced 29 goals as an 18-year-old rookie in 2006-07. Despite developing into one of the NHL's best two-way forwards, and a shutdown specialist who can neutralize any scorer, Staal hasn't scored more than 22 goals since. He had 11 in 42 games last season, when hand and foot injuries kept him out until Jan. 1.
More than his average of one goal per week would greatly help the Penguins' offence as it awaits Crosby's return.
5. Did the Penguins add enough during the off-season? With Crosby and Malkin each making US$8.7 million, general manager Ray Shero is squeezed for salary cap space. As a result, the major summertime addition was 37-year-old forward Steve Sullivan, who can't seem to stay away from injuries.
6. Has goalie Marc-Andre Fleury finally found his consistency? Fleury proved to be a big-game goalie during the Stanley Cup run of 2009, but was wildly inconsistent the following season. After starting 1-6 last year, he settled into the steadiest season of his career, with a 36-20-5 record and 2.32 goals-against average. At age 26, he still might not have peaked.
7. Are the Penguins really that good defensively? Adding expensive defenceman Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek last season helped them become the NHL's best penalty-killing team. They almost had to be while permitting 324 power plays, the second-most in the league. Defenceman Brooks Orpik is recovering from a sports hernia, which could partly limit his effectiveness when the season begins.
8. Was defenceman Kris Letang a half-season wonder? Letang, who partners with Orpik, was the Penguins' second-leading scorer with eight goals and 50 points. But his production plummeted during the second half — he had a lone goal and nine assists in his final 37 games. (By contrast, he had one goal and six assists in five games just before his slide began.)
9. Can James Neal become the real deal? Picked up from Dallas to add a long-needed proven scorer to the Crosby line, Neal never got to play alongside No. 87 — and he never got untracked. He managed only one goal in 20 games after having 21 in 59 games with the Stars. The Penguins need much more from Neal this season, and they can't wait until Crosby comes back.
"I know what to expect now," Neal said. "I know what to do."