Monday, August 22, 2011

30 Fans in 30 Days: Katie & the Pittsburgh Penguins

As a lead-up to the new season, here at HockeyBroad we'll both be reviewing How Teams Spent Their Summer Vacation, and also profiling one fan from each team's fandom, covering 30 Teams In 30 Days. The teams will be profiled in order determined by their points standing last season, highest to lowest, with the exception of Chicago, which will be profiled last to coincide with the date of their Training Camp Festival.

Team 4 of 30: the Pittsburgh Penguins


Dan Bylsma is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and with good reason. Not only did the guide the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup in team history, but the team holds an excellent 65-31-11 regular season record. Although he has only been head coach for the Pens for 2-1/2 seasons, he has met or surpassed a variety of team records. In a February 2011 NHLPA poll, Bylsma was voted the "coach players would most like to play for" by 21% of active players - beating veteran Detroit coach Mike Babcock by 3%. (The next closest was Dave Tippet at 9%).

When players like their coach that much, you can guarantee they'll perform for him, and they'll buy into the team systems. No where was that more evident last season than Pittburgh, when the team lost its two powerhouse star players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, to season-ending injuries, while another top player, Jordan Staal, was still recovering form injuries that kept him from playing most of the first half of the season. It was a testamount not only to Bylsma, but the depth of the Penguins system that despite being depleted by major injuries (and lesser ones as well), the team not only held together, but still managed to keep home ice advantage in the playoffs.

Along the way, the Penguins were highlighted in the same 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic series as the Washington Capitals, showing side of the team that most had not witnessed before.

However, for the first time since the 2007 playoffs, the Penguins just couldn't make it out of the first round against a highly determined Tampa Bay Lightning team, who beat them in a highly charged 7-game series.

The primary question heading into the new season is Sidney Crosby's health. Crosby has, in the several years since he was drafted into the NHL, become one of the league's poster boys. Supremely talented on the ice and a natural leader, his aw-shucks wholesomeness is an ideal that any hockey player can look up to. In 2010, he scored "the golden goal" for Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics. 

Crosby took a hit to the head in the Winter Classic, and another a few days later in a different game. Up until that point in the season, he was in top form, easily leading the league in points. His lead was so dominant that although Crosby missed the rest of the season, it took until March to knock him out of the top 5 in most scoring categories.

The continued question mark over Crosby's head - and career - are troubling for his future, but something that can only be addressed on a day-by-day basis, and his continued progression is a sign that we will hopefully see him back on the ice sooner rather than later this season. And while Crosby's 2011-12 season remains a question mark - he is working out and doing ice workouts, although he has not yet returned to contact practice, and conflicting reports keep coming out of Nova Scotia whether or not Crosby has or has not had concussion symptoms appearing again. The Penguins have stated that it is something that will be evaluated once the training season officially begins.

In the meantime, the rest of the team has had a long summer to recuperate from injuries and should all be fully rested and ready to go come October. There was very little major turnover for the Penguins; perhaps the biggest names to move were Mike Rupp (to the Rangers), Maxime Talbot (to cross-state rivals the Flyers), and the non-re-signing of Mike Comrie. And while Pittsburgh picked up solid players like Steve Sullivan and Alexandre Picard via trade or free agency, there were really no "blockbuster" names on the table, although the Pens were briefly associated with the hoopla surrounding Jagr's return to the NHL. In reviewing the Penguins' current roster, there are a lot of names on the list from the Penguins farm system -- not surprising, since it was the depth of their AHL and ECHL teams which carried them through last season.
New to team - listed on current roster/team acquired from:Steve MacIntyre (EDM), Alexandre Picard (MTL), Steve Sullivan (NSH), Boris Valabik (ATL), Jason Williams (DAL)
Players who appeared in games for the Penguins during the 2010-11 season that have been traded or not yet re-signed/(team now signed with): Mike Comrie, Chris Conner (DET), Eric Godard (DAL), Alex Goligoski (DAL), Andrew Hutchinson, Alex Kovalev, Corey Potter (EDM), Mike Rupp (NYR), Brett Sterling (STL), Maxime Talbot (PHL), Tim Wallace (NYI)


Katie (@NHLKate) writes for and for Hockey Quarterly.

Let's talk about your history as a Pens fan - you've followed the team for about 5 years.

I was born in Pittsburgh, and so I was raised amidst the legends of Lemieux, Jagr, Coffey, and the rest. Despite, that, I was never thoroughly interested in hockey. To be honest, I wasn't into sports at all. Then, in 2005, Sidney Crosby was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Say what you want about him; either way it was as if hockey in Pittsburgh had been reborn. The excitement felt almost tangible... This one kid came to Pittsburgh and revitalized a franchise and a team, and suddenly people were excited about hockey again.

Though I was only in middle school at the time, I was one of the many who became the Penguins self-proclaimed biggest fan. Since then I have grown with the team and the sport, trying to learn more about the history and future of hockey every season. From a few years' distance, it's amazing to see what a transformation Pittsburgh has undergone. While we once lived clinging to the remnants of early 90's Stanley Cup memories, we now willingly put our hopes into a core of brilliant players and trust in them come victory or defeat. Heck, we tied with Detroit in a poll for "Greatest Hockey Town." Though, as a hockey writer, I rarely get the chance to write about my hometown team, I will always cheer them on!

Which player that your team signed/acquired this summer are you most excited to see take the ice this season?

Steven Sullivan

Taking into consideration your team's performance last year/recently, and any player/personnel (coaches, GMs, ownership) changes made in the past few months, talk about your team in 2011-2012: How do you think they've improved (or made worse)? What do they need to work on? Discuss anything related to your team's performance for the 2011-12 season, good or bad.

The 2011-12 Penguins are likely looking to continue where the 2010-11 "Season That Could Have Been" left off. As TSN, Versus, and the NHL Network reminded us on a daily basis, Malkin was out, Crosby was out, and the Penguins were missing a smattering of players at any given time post-December. That being said, the team, as well as promising trade-deadline acquisitions, never really had a chance to gel.

Because of this, the off-season hasn't exactly been a time for major change. Instead, the team brought in a few skilled veterans to complement the young core of players. This season, once the new squad has a chance to come together and gets a feel as a team, they are going to be as gritty and dangerous as ever.

Whether or not you think your team will make the playoffs, where do you predict your team will place within their conference?

3rd in the Eastern Conference

What was your favorite moment for your team last season?

In February 2011, the Penguins played a game against the Islanders that did not end well, to say the least. Players were left frustrated and injured. Yet, only a few days later, the team embarked on a trip to New York City. The team bus broke down, and the team was forced to hail taxi cabs, load up their equipment, and head to Central Park for a practice at an outdoor rink. Watching the player and coach accounts of that day left me with such a smile on my face. They were in good spirits and were already thinking ahead to the next game. The resilience and dedication was astounding, and it made me admire them all the more.

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