Saturday, September 10, 2005

Can these Penguins fly?

There's a ton of optimism surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into this season, and why shouldn't there be? Sidney Crosby, Mark Recchi, Zigmund Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, John Leclair, Jocelyn Thibault... the list of incoming 'stars' is seemingly endless.

From today's Toronto Sun:

By adding No. 1 overall pick Sidney Crosby to a team already restocked with talented free agents, the Pittsburgh Penguins feel they've turned back the clock to the early 1990s -- when they were two-time Stanley Cup champions and perennial contenders...

"It's like it was back in the early '90s when we were coming to camp with a chance to win a championship every year," general manager Craig Patrick said of Crosby's signing yesterday.

I'm just as interested as anyone to follow the Penguins this season, as Patrick has assembled an intriguing array of talent. I can't help but think, however, that his 'team building' strategy strangely resembles that of Glen Sather and the New York Rangers, circa the last 10 years.

This, after all, is a Pittsburgh club that had 65 points last season and finished 29th in a 30 team league last season. To expect that a team whose nucleus was so awful to suddenly be reborn as a contender, to me, seems farfetched.

I don't doubt Crosby will eventually be a fantastic player and, yes, Patrick has added a few dependable — if not a few years beyond their prime —— snipers up front. And despite the fact Thibault's talents have been squandered the past few seasons in Chicago, he is, barring injury, a very good NHL goaltender.

Aside from Gonchar and lead-footed Lyle Odelein, however, Pittsburgh's defence —— ranked dead last in 2003-04 with 303 goals allowed —— has not significantly changed. Comprising the remaining four members of the team's top six grouping will be a mix of Josef Melichar, Richard Jackman, Brooks Orpik, Ryan Whitney, Rob Scuderi and Dick Tarnstrom (who, as McKeen's Yearbook notes, has a "hard act to follow" after leading the team in scoring in 2003-04).

To be sure, the championship Penguins teams of old won their games with combination of a lethal offence and dazzling speed, and that appears to be the model Patrick is emulating (although, aside from Crosby and youngsters Ryan Malone and Konstantin Koltsov, speed is in short supply on this club). Pittsburgh will also not have the services of Aleksey Morozov, Kris Beech and Milan Kraft, three of the young building pieces that could have nicely complemented the incoming players. We all know how well the Rangers built chemistry by buying up the best available talents.

McKeen's Yearbook predicts the Penguins will finish the season with 83 points and in fourth place in a fairly weak Atlantic Division, a position that will likely put them well outside of a playoff spot in the East. Considering how injury prone much of the team's core is — expect Lemieux, Palffy and Thibault to all miss considerable time —— even that low total may be out of reach.

That's not to say the Penguins won't be a great team to watch this season. They'll take part in their fair share of nine and ten goal games —— they just may be on the losing end of more than a few of them.

(I should add that, personally, I think Patrick's moves will have the desired effect of filling Mellon Arena this year. Hopefully the club will also be get a new arena built using the newfound optimism around the team as its foundation)

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