NHL Pre-season Predictions: Metropolitan Division – No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins

THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: First in Metropolitan. *Cup finalist pick.

2013: 36-12-0. First in East.

KEY DEPARTURES: Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, Jarome Iginla, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy.

KEY ADDITIONS: Matt D’Agostini, Andrew Ebbett, Rob Scuderi, Harry Zolnierczyk.

PROS: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could win the Art Ross and/or Hart every year. Kris Letang emerged as a Norris finalist last season and could take another run at the top defenseman award. And James Neal could even evolve into a Rocket Richard candidate over a full season. The Penguins lineup is loaded with superstars, complemented by role players and ones good enough to keep up with the elite guys. The power play ranked No. 2 in the league and has been a top five unit two years in a row now. The defense isn’t bad either, with Paul Martin bouncing back from two poor seasons with the Pens to log a trusted 25:19 of ice per game. Brooks Orpik became a dominant shot blocker and brings an intimidating physical game, while two-time Cup champion Rob Scuderi is back after four years in Los Angeles. And there are plenty of options to use on the third pairing too, with youngsters Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and Robert Bortuzzo knocking on the door and veteran Matt Niskanen still capable of pulling in 20 minutes a night. The combination of Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun between the pipes allows the Penguins to pick between two veteran goalies and ride the hot hand – though Vokoun is now out indefinitely with a blood clot.

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CONS: While we’re on the topic of goaltending, Fleury has been a critical weakness come playoff time four years in a row now, which is why Pittsburgh had to get Vokoun in the first place. Fleury has two years left on his contract and if he doesn’t turn his post-season fortunes around, it’s unlikely he’ll be with the team beyond 2015 because this franchise is all-in for as many Stanley Cups as it can get in the next decade. Vokoun has been stable, but he’s 37, injured and isn’t a long-term solution. Goaltending is about the only glaring weakness that has held the Penguins back the past few years…but it’s a throbbing post-season pain that won’t go away.

X-FACTOR: For all the negative coverage Fleury gets over his recent post-season numbers, he’s still a top 20 goalie in the regular season. That should continue. But when we’re talking about the Penguins, we’re doing so with an eye on the late rounds of the playoffs. Fleury’s time with the Penguins – whether it ends in the near future or a decade from now – will be defined by his playoff success. The team is built to win multiple Cups, so if Fleury doesn’t get back on that track soon, the Penguins won’t win and he’ll likely move on.