There's really only one question concerning Penguins fans this season: when will Sidney Crosby be ready to play?
The answer, of course, is a definitive 'who knows?' at this point. But the fact of the matter is that the longer Crosby's status remains uncertain, the harder it will be for the Pens to keep up in the East.
The team did well without The Kid last season under the guidance of Jack Adams Award-winning coach Dan Bylsma, but one has to wonder how long the team can keep up without its leader and one of the game's brightest stars.
Here's what's in store for the Penguins in 2011-12.
Additions: LW Steve MacIntyre, D Alexandre Picard, LW Steve Sullivan, RW Jason Williams
Subtractions: RW Eric Godard, RW Alex Kovalev, D Corey Potter, C Michael Rupp, LW Brett Sterling, C Maxime Talbot
Prospects: The name of the game in the Pens system is defence. Their 2009 first-rounder Simon Despres should be ready to make the jump soon and the Pens also used their first pick in this past summer's draft to take two-way defender Joe Morrow from Portland of the WHL. Up front, the team has high hopes for Eric Tangradi, who saw a 15-game audition over three stints with the big club last season.
It should surprise few that the Pens prospect pool relies heavily on defencemen for a couple reasons. First off, with three of the game's premier centres in the 25-and-under bracket already on their roster, the amount of forward help they need is lessened. Secondly, the team has made a habit of trading young defenders for help on the wings, having dealt young studs Ryan Whitney and Alex Goligoski in the past three years for Chris Kunitz and James Neal, so keeping the pipeline full has proven beneficial.
Breakout Player to Watch: The first time a player gets traded, it's always a big system shock. That's why it's a decent bet to expect James Neal to be much better this coming season.
Acquired from Dallas just before the trade deadline, Neal went to Pittsburgh with 39 points but would add only one more goal and six more points in the following 20 games. Considering the sudden change of scenery for the 23-year-old may have affected his play (and that he played those 20 games without both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), that number can only go up if one or both of them are healthy.
Marquee Match-Up: Call it a Comeback? Oct. 13 vs. Washington - While the outlook is still muddy at best for Crosby's return, any time these two teams line up against one another, it's always a great show. Malkin and Alex Ovechkin have a storied and colourful past together, Mike Green and Kris Letang have emerged as two of the game's best young puck-movers and with the addition of Tomas Vokoun, the Caps boast of a stud goalie to rival Marc-Andre Fleury.
Other Dates to Watch: Dec. 29 vs. Philadelphia - Jaromir Jagr returns to where it all began, as a member of the cross-state-rival Flyers. Feb. 29 at Dallas - Neal visits the Stars for the first time since being dealt.
Reason to Get Excited: Things can only look up after last season. Just about everything that could go wrong for the Pens injury-wise in 2010-11 did, and the team still finished a point behind Washington for first in the Eastern Conference.
The team racked up 106 points despite Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal each playing less than 45 games. With a cleaner bill of health, the Pens could challenge for the President's Trophy. The team may still be a contender without a full squad - based on last year's results.
There's little Sidney Crosby has yet to add to his trophy case, but one that may well be within reach is the Bill Masterton Trophy. Given for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, it's Crosby's for the taking if he can return to form after his lengthy recovery period.
Consider that Crosby wound up leading the team in scoring last season despite playing only 41 games. Consider also the 25-game points streak that he was riding until just three games before the injury occurred. Sid was running away with the Hart Trophy like few have in recent history. Just a week later, speculation began that he may never play again.
If he returns to prominence, he'll be out front for the Masterton. If he returns to dominance, no one will even come close to challenging him. And of course if he returns to dominance, he will be a favourite for the Hart, Art Ross and Ted Lindsay awards as well.
Other potential Trophy winners for the Penguins include Evgeni Malkin who will also challenge for the Art Ross, and Jordan Staal for the Selke.
On The Hot Seat: The Penguins took a chance on Steve Sullivan in the off-season, picking the winger up as a free agent on the cheap in the hopes that he can stay healthy and contribute to their top six forwards.
The problem is that since the lockout, Sullivan has only once played more than 70 games in one season. Last season it was his groin and in 2007-08 he missed the entire season with a back injury. At 37, this may be Sullivan's last kick at the can.
Question: If Sid is out long-term, whose team is this?
No one seems to know how long it will be until Crosby returns to the Penguins, or if he'll return at all. In his absence, the team's leadership should naturally fall to Malkin.
Malkin was the team's best player in its 2010 Stanley Cup run, but has been known to be moody and streaky at times.
Staal has the ability to take a game on his shoulders and lead by example with exceptional two-way play, but it's not often that a team's shutdown centre steps up to be 'the man' on the scoreboard.
Fleury is outspoken, but as Roberto Luongo demonstrated in Vancouver, a goalie can only do so much to rally the troops and Letang - while emerging as an elite rearguard - is not even an alternate captain for the Pens.
The team has done well under Bylsma's tutelage, but if Crosby's not ready, who steps up to take the lead in Pittsburgh?