(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Penguins were the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference last season, and probably the favorites to win the Stanley Cup once the playoffs started. They will likely be among the top two favorites to win the Cup once this season is underway, and no one would shake their head at that distinction.
You can hardly say last season's Penguins didn't succeed. They were the only Eastern Conference team with at least 30 wins -- and they had 36. Their 72 points in a lockout-shortened season were nine more than second place Montreal. The Penguins beat the upstart Islanders in six games in the first round of the playoffs and got past the Senators in five games in the second.
Then, a flameout -- swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.
Despite loading up at the trade deadline, it was the fourth straight year the Penguins failed to make the Stanley Cup Finals since 2009, when they won their first Cup since Mario Lemieux captained the team.
So when does a four-year absence from the Stanley Cup Finals count as a huge disappointment for an NHL team?
When you have some of the best offensive weapons in the league.
"Our team is a team that considers itself a team capable of winning a Stanley Cup, (that's) put together to win a Stanley Cup. That's our expectation from Day One. That's how we build through the season," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after the Game 4 loss to Boston.
"We certainly feel that we were a team that was capable of winning a Stanley Cup. So coming up short from that, no question, it's disappointing."
Bylsma, who signed a two-year extension in June, is right. Any Penguins season these days starts with the same question: Is this team capable of winning the Stanley Cup? Every year the answer is the same: Yes.
What's the key to making it a reality? Sports Network writer Bob Herpen said in a terse explanation for the upcoming Penguins season: "Health is wealth."
But also: Can the Penguins score enough to overcome perceived shortcomings on defense and in net?
FORWARDS - If any team in the NHL has enough offense to bury concerns about defense, it's the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby finished fourth in the NHL in scoring during the regular season despite missing the last 12 games with a broken jaw suffered when he was hit in the face by teammate Brooks Orpik's slap shot (he also missed the first game of the playoffs).
Crosby, who seems finally to be over the concussion symptoms that caused him to miss so much time the previous two seasons, had 56 points in 36 games -- just four behind league leader Martin St. Louis.
And Crosby is entering his ninth NHL season as a 26-year-old, right around the age most hockey players experience the prime of their careers. That should be a scary thought for the rest of the NHL.
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both failed to score a point against the Bruins but there's no reason to believe that was anything but a slump for both players.
Malkin, 27, missed 17 games last season as he dealt with injuries, but he and Crosby are the engines that make the best offense in the league go.
Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis finished second and third on the team in points behind Crosby and both signed contract extensions, so they're locked up. Beau Bennett had 14 points in 26 games as a rookie and will have a full season to try to prove he can keep that pace.
Trade deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow have moved on to other cities, as has professional agitator Matt Cooke.
DEFENSE - The Penguins ranked 12th in the NHL in goals-against average last season.
Kris Letang signed an eight-year extension during in offseason and will anchor the defense along with 34-year-old Rob Scuderi, who's back in Pittsburgh after four seasons with the Kings.
Scuderi, who won a Stanley Cup with both teams, inked a four-year contract. He played for the Penguins from 2003-09.
Douglas Murray, Pittsburgh's other key addition at the deadline last season, has signed with the Canadiens.
GOALTENDING - Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun had surgery on Sept. 21 to dissolve a clot in his pelvis. Though the clot wasn't caused by an injury, Vokoun will be out indefinitely.
That leaves 26-year-old Jeff Zatkoff, who has never played a regular-season NHL game, to backup Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury, of course, was benched during the Penguins' first-round series against the Islanders and Vokoun finished the playoffs in net.
Fleury, who is signed through the 2014-15 season, has struggled to keep the puck out of the net in each of the last four postseasons and is among the biggest question marks heading into the season.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Penguins will make the playoffs. What they do when they get there is really what the season is all about.
Will the goaltending hold up? Will the team's top scorers go through another drought at the worst possible time? Can the team improve its middling defense?
One thing's for sure: Realignment didn't do much to hurt the Penguins' chances of being the best team in the conference again.
Along with four former Atlantic Division rivals -- Flyers, Devils, Rangers and Islanders -- the Penguins will share the Metropolitan Division with Carolina, Columbus and Washington. Those teams went a combined 70-60-14 last season.