Team Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Key additions: Sidney Crosby, C (D - 2005, 1/1); Sergei Gonchar, D (FA - BOS); Zigmund Palffy, RW (FA - LA); Mark Recchi, RW (FA - PHI); John LeClair, LW (FA - PHI); Jocelyn Thibault, G (T - CHI); Lyle Odelein, D (FA - FLA); Andre Roy, LW (FA - TB); Steve Poapst, D (FA - CHI); Dany Sabourin, G (FA - CGY); Ryan Whitney, D (D - 2002, 1/5)

Key losses: Aleksey Morozov, LW/RW (FA); Milan Kraft, C (FA - Europe); Michal Rozsival, D (FA - NYR); Tom Kostopoulos, RW (FA - LA); Jean-Sebastien Aubin, G (FA - TOR); Kris Beech, C (T - NSH); Ramzi Abid, LW (FA - ATL); Dan Focht, D (FA - FLA); Landon Wilson, RW (FA - Europe); Mike Eastwood, C (FA)

Key players unsigned: None

Forwards: Perhaps you've heard that the Pens won the draft lottery back in July and subsequently drafted Sidney Crosby, whose spot in the Hall of Fame is already being set aside, and with good reason. Crosby racked up 168 points in the QMJHL last year, an eye-popping total that has rarely been equalled. Well, Patrice Lefebvre did it twice. You remember the three NHL games Lefebvre played for the Caps back in 1998-99, don't you? Stephan Lebeau put up seasons of 188 and 167 points in the Q before going on to an NHL career that saw him top 58 points once. Patrick Edmond scored 139 and 167 points in the Q (eerily similar to Crosby's 135 and 168), but the Penguins' 1983 draft pick never played a game in the NHL. And some guy named Mario Lemieux bested 168 points in a QMJHL season twice as well (including 282 points in 70 games in 1983-84). Now, Crosby is "the real deal," we're told, and will undoubtedly be a productive NHLer. But to think that an 18-year-old kid who is barely six feet tall in his skates will step into a man's league and dominate immediately is a little absurd. Or is it? The idea of playing alongside Lemieux and his proté was apparently an attractive lure in the offseason as the Pens were able to nab Ziggy Palffy, a world-class winger when healthy, but Palffy has only played 70 games in a season twice in the last six NHL seasons, so he certainly fits in the "high risk/high reward" category. Mark Recchi will likely play alongside Super Mario and Sid the Kid to begin the season. After a rebirth in Philly in 2003-04 that saw his point total rocket from 52 to 75 in one year, Recchi is hoping to rekindle some of the magic that brought a Cup to Pittsburgh the last time he skated alongside #66. John LeClair landed in Pittsburgh as well after being bought out by the Flyers, and should have 20-25 goals left in his stick for this season. The Pens will mix in some younger veterans with these ancients, as Ryan Malone, Lasse Pirjeta and Konstantin Koltsov will be counted on to supply depth up front. But, if as expected, Lemieux and Crosby play together and Malone plays his natural wing, the team is incredibly weak up the middle, with Pirjeta its #2 center and Shane Endicott #3. Expect to see Recchi and Malone play some at the pivot and even - dare we suggest it - for Lemieux and Crosby to skate separately from time to time. The Penguins will have a lights-out power play, and will score more than a few goals even strength as well. But overall depth up front is a major concern (the losses of Morozov and Kraft will hurt), especially with such a mature group.

Defensemen: The 2003-04 Penguins gave up more goals, 303, than any other team in the NHL. So the Pens did what any team would do: they spent $3.5 million on a defenseman who is afraid to hit people, gets caught out of position regularly, and makes untimely mistakes in his own zone. Sergei Gonchar had a miserable minus-20 rating in 2003-04 before being rescued from a woeful Capitals team whose defense wasn't much worse off than the corps he finds himself leading in Pittsburgh. But Gonchar is a point-producing machine who is a good passer and has a bomb from the point. Manning the other point on the top power play unit (if it's not a forward) will be Dick Tarnstrom, another power play specialist with no particular love of playing defense. Ric Jackman is another Pens blueliner with offensive upside and limited defensive ability. Paired with these three forwards, err, defensemen will be a combination of 15-year veteran Lyle Odelein, up-and-coming bruiser Brooks Orpik, Steve Poapst and Josef Melichar, none of whom will be counted on for any offense. A wild-card is Ryan Whitney, who is coming off a good year in the AHL and projects to be a #1 defenseman. Hopefully for the Pens, that projection is accurate and happens sooner, rather than later, because the other seven blueliners had a combined minus-143 rating in 2003-04.

Goaltenders: The best move the Pens have made since the end of the 2003-04 season was to acquire Jocelyn Thibault via Chicago. For only $1.5 million (less than a quarter of what the Blackhawks are paying his replacement), the Pens got a goalie who is only 30-years-old and had impressive numbers (2.37 goals against average, .915 save percentage) in 2002-03, his last full season. The perception is that Thibault is injury-prone, but prior to 2003-04 (in which he played in only 14 games), he had played at least 60 games in each season since 1997-98. More importantly, playing Thibault will protect future franchise backstop Marc-Andre Fleury from being shell-shocked, because the Pens could play Thibault and Fleury next to each other in goal and still give up three goals per game. Fleury is coming off a mediocre year in the AHL that saw him benched during Wilkes-Barre's playoff run, but expectations are still sky-high for the former #1 overall pick. The Pens would probably be wise to give Fleury another year in the AHL and bulk up the blueline before throwing him to the NHL wolves full-time, a task to which a veteran like Thibault is better suited.

Bottom line: The cash-strapped Penguins, poster team for the need for a salary cap 16 months ago, have already committed $9 million more to their 2005-06 payroll than they paid in 2003-04. That's a heck of a lot of #87 jerseys and ticket sales for a team that was dead last in attendance last NHL season. One wonders where all the money has suddenly come from. Then one reads that the team is projected to lose at least $7 million this year. The Pens are living the American dream - buying on credit and willing to declare bankruptcy when it comes time to pay. Of course they're gambling that the city, the state or Santa Claus will build them a new rink to replace the Igloo, quite possibly the worst building in the NHL. We wish them luck with that. Really. It would be a shame for them to have to be relocated to, say, Winnipeg. In the interim, the Pens have bought themselves a team that should make the playoffs on an "if you can't stop 'em, outscore 'em" theory, but will have trouble winning once there unless they get better down the middle and on defense. But they'll be nothing if not entertaining. And broke.


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