The other Penguins
Don't look now, but after a 2-0 victory over Washington this afternoon, those upstart Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the NHL's hottest teams, with a six-game winning streak and points in their past nine games (8-0-1).
One of those teams in a dogfight for a playoff spot, they now have 60 points — just two away from moving into fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. It's heady stuff considering this team was second-last in the league last season with just 58 points.
One of the unfortunate things I've noticed about the coverage the Penguins are getting lately, however, is that most of it begins and ends with the team's three young stars: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. And while it's true they are remarkable talents, the trio play 20:35, 19:43 and 14:05 minutes per game.
In other words, there are other players on the ice, many of whom have been doing a mighty fine job in leading Pittsburgh's charge up the standings.
Veterans Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar are certainly no strangers to posting points and have worked well in complementary roles here, but one of the real untold stories in Pittsburgh is just how much the team's young talent beyond the big three is blossoming.
Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, for one, is having a career year, highlighted by his two recent shutouts, and finally looks much like the start prospect he was when he was drafted first overall in 2003. Fleury's only two months removed from his 22nd birthday, which is remarkable given he's already played nearly 200 pro games.
But how about a player like defenceman Ryan Whitney, who has become one of the best young blueliners in the game under the cloak of secrecy playing with Crosby et al. affords. Whitney's on pace for 61 points this season, which would put him in the top handful of defencemen in the league.
In fact, the degree to which Pittsburgh's defence core has improved is, I would argue, as much responsible for the team's resurgence as Crosby's improvement over last season. In addition to Gonchar and Whitney, the crew of Rob Scuderi, Josef Melichar, Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik and Noah Welch is vastly underrated, and playing well above my expectations heading into the season. Adding another experienced blueliner to this mix at the trade deadline, which GM Ray Shero just may opt to do, would give them a group at least on par with the other Eastern Conference hopefuls — something you certainly couldn't say at this time last year when fishing the puck out of the net was the group's only real specialty.
Even in supporting roles upfront the Penguins have gotten excellent contributions from youngsters like Michel Ouellet, former Kamloops Blazers captain Erik Christensen and top penalty killers Maxime Talbot and Colby Armstrong.
In fact, I'd wager the Penguins have one of — if not the — youngest special-teams crews ever, as the team's penalty kill unit often looks greener than those on the power play. Take these PK combinations from the Penguins' game on Thursday against Montreal (a 5-4 shootout win for Pittsburgh) with ages in parentheses:
Colby Armstrong (24) and Maxime Talbot (22): 7:02 ice time
Jordan Staal (18) and Ryan Malone (27): 2:06 ice time
Mark Eaton (29) and Sergei Gonchar (32): 4:39 ice time
Rob Scuderi and Alain Nasreddine (31): 1:45 ice time
Eaton and Ryan Whitney (23): 1:04 ice time
Eaton and Scuderi: 0:38 ice time
Throw in a power play built around Crosby, Malkin, Whitney, Ouellet (third on team in power-play goals with seven) and Christensen, and that's a lot of youth to be banking your special teams on.
That's not to take away from what Pittsburgh has in Crosby, Malkin and Staal, three of the game's next great stars. But there's an awful lot more going into the Penguins' turnaround than what that trio are contributing.
If anything, the team's core group of 11 players born in 1982 or later are a testament to the team's ability to draft well beyond the first round (Ouellet, Talbot, Welch) and accumulate a wealth of prospects (Christensen, Chris Thorburn) that are actually contributing well before hitting their free-agency age.
Getting Crosby may have been the luck of the draw back in 2005, but this is a team that's reaching its peak throughout the roster, something that is owed to more than simply being continuously awful.
If this team can put together a run into the playoffs and beyond, I don't doubt the Whitneys and Talbots will get their due, but until then, it's The Crosby Show and they're just passengers, along for the ride.