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Camp Countdown: Neal, Cooke among Top 5 Storylines

The Pittsburgh Penguins report to training camp on Friday September 16th and here is a look at five storylines for the Penguins going into the 2011-2012 season:
1. Health of Sidney Crosby: The health of the games best player will not only be the Penguins top storyline but also the entire NHL. Crosby last played on January 5, 2011 and he’s endured a long recovery that has included headaches and symptoms following hard skates and workouts, recently as early as mid-August. Going into training camp, the mystery still remains when Crosby will play again.
Although some progress is starting to be made in his rehab process, Crosby’s return to action is still likely a ways away and it would be a big surprise if he was ready to go at any point in early October when the Penguins open the season. The Penguins, Crosby and all parties involved contend to be as cautious as possible. For now, what to look forward to is Crosby participating in camp. He is scheduled to be evaluated this week where he will learn what type if any participation level he can have in camp with the team.
2. Can Malkin regain former elite status: Aside from Sidney Crosby, the biggest storyline is Evgeni Malkin. Coming off a torn ACL, Malkin is going into camp in what is said to be the best shape of his career and is motivated as ever to get back to being one of the games top players. All of that isn’t going to matter one bit, if he can’t established himself again as a premier player.
 With Crosby expected to be sidelined to start the season, the Penguins will lean heavily on Malkin as their No. 1 center. Malkin the past two seasons dealt with shoulder and knee problems. Hopefully he gets past the injury bug.  The one thing scouts continue to wait to see from Malkin is whether he can transform into a 40+ goal scorer again. The regression in that area since 2007-2008, has been been a factor in Malkin’s dropoff as one of the games best players.
3. Developing James Neal as a Right Winger: James Neal had 2 goals in 27 games as a Penguins and just 3 goals in his final 38 games (DAL, PIT) last season. Neal struggled tremendously with the transition to Pittsburgh, following a trade from Dallas and he suddenly lost any kid of goal scoring touch he had. The Penguins believe it was just a bump in the road for Neal and he’s primed for a potential 30 goal season.
Unlike last season, Neal will have an opportunity to play with two dynamic centers in Evgeni Malkin and hopefully Sidney Crosby at some point. However, Neal’s struggles last season can’t all be attributed to playing with Mark Letestu or Jordan Staal. A major knock on Neal was his inability to drive to the net and develop a power game. He spent most of his time on the perimeter and he has to go away from being a perimeter player.
A very intriguing storyline going into the season is the Penguins intending to bulk up their first line and developing Neal as a right winger, which the Penguins believe won’t be an issue for Neal. From a lineup standpoint, there are positives and negatives with the Penguins putting both Neal and Chris Kunitz at wing on the first line, which Dan Bylsma indicated that’s the plan when Crosby’s healthy, according to the Post-Gazette. One negative is that it weakens the group of second line wingers, leaving a smallish second line on the wings with Tyler Kennedy and Steve Sullivan.
4. Matt Cooke transforming his game:Matt Cooke let his teammates and the franchise down last season, where he was suspended for the final 17 games (including playoffs) of the season and 21 games overall in 2010-2011. Cooke now vows to transform his game and play within the rules. The main storyline here is how it will affect his overall game. He will be under the microscope on a nightly basis and it could be a transition for a 10+ year veteran to suddenly tone his aggressiveness down and play within the rules.
5. Can Sullivan make an Impact on the power play: The Penguins have high expectations for 37 year old winger Steve Sullivan who figures to see a heavy workload. That could be a bad thing due to age and injuries, where he’s battled back and groin problems for several years. Sullivan is penciled in as a second line winger and on the top power play unit, where he’s viewed as a primary option to bring up the puck and play up high. The Penguins like Sullivan’s skill set and believe he has the ability to fit extremely well in Dan Bylsma’s push the play tempo. The area the Penguins are said to have the most intrigue about Sullivan is on the power play. The Penguins feel Sullivan gives them a differenct dynamic due to his ability to play up top as a right handed shot.
“I can come in here, have some play power time. I’ve been able to quarterback the power play in Nashville for the last few years, ” Sullivan said in July.
“I was the carry the puck in zone guy and trying to set up on the flat side, ” Sullivan said on his power play position in Nashville. “We’ve had brief discussions about it and I can play anywhere on that { Left} side.
An interesting tidbit is that a spot where Sullivan had the most success in his career was playing down low but that was all the way back in 2005-2006 when he scored 13 power play goals. Down low in around the net hasn’t been a spot he’s accustomed to of late.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been there {goal line}… I do like to play behind the goal line, on the goal line and around the net. I like little plays, little tap in goals, little back door plays. My best year in Nashville would have been when Paul Kariya and I were playing goal lines, 5-on-3 and power plays, cross ice passes….probably where we had the most fun and success.

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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