Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Spector: Penguins Have Some Work to Do

Lyke "Spector" Richardson of FoxSports.com has a look at the Penguins and what they have to do in the future to improve.

It wasn't supposed to end like this for the Pens. They'd won the Sidney Crosby draft lottery last July, team owner and captain Mario Lemieux was returning to action for another season and was supposed to thrive under the new NHL rules, and thanks to the new CBA, the Pens were able to invest in free agent help.

With Lemieux tutoring "Sid the Kid" and a roster buoyed by veterans like Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Jocelyn Thibault, Zigmund Palffy and John LeClair, the Pens were expected to make the playoffs.

Unfortunately, GM Craig Patrick ignored the lesson the New York Rangers had painfully learned under the old CBA: You can't build a winner with free agency as your main pillar.
It's true that you can't simply buy a team, but the Penguins lack of good defense in general was a weakness from the start, and who expected Sergei Gonchar to suck so badly in the new NHL? Dick Tarnstrom? If I were looking at one element that wasn't addressed until too late, I'd point to coach Ed Olczyk, who couldn't be bothered to have his team play better defensively.

Crosby has been everything he was expected to be, leading the Penguins in every offensive category. Indeed, it can be argued that Crosby's performance improved following Lemieux's retirement, as he was able to fully take over as the franchise player.
Even before Lemieux's retirement, Sidney was already the franchise and already the team's best player. Palffy and Crosby were certainly doing good while the old Lemieux/Leclair combo struggled badly.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who spent the first half of the season bouncing between the Pens and their farm club for contract reasons, has in the second half provided the Pens with solid, even spectacular goaltending.
That's true. After being nearly ruined by the Penguins right out of juniors, Fleury has been a big reason why the Penguins have been in many games late in the year. His numbers are pretty bad, but you can see the skill and potential and ability to make tough saves.

Brooks Orpik is gaining a reputation as a tough, stay-at-home defenseman while Josef Melichar is also showing some promise on the blueline.
Well, we know Orpik is a cheap-shot artist with a big mouth. The Pens did well when they had another guy just like that: Ulf Samuelsson ;) As for Melichar, he should be a 'decent' average defenseman some day.

Then there's the promise of next season, when their 2004 second overall pick, highly touted center Evgeny Malkin, will be making his debut. Like his countryman Alexander Ovechkin (drafted first overall that year) and his soon-to-be teammate Crosby, Malkin should make an immediate impact.

The Penguins stand a good chance of landing the first overall pick in this year's draft, where they could get a shot at such top prospects as Phil Kessel, Johnathan Toews, Jordan Staal (brother of the Hurricanes Eric Staal), Michael Frolik or Niklas Backstrom.
Malkin, the big lanky kid ranked #1 by The Hockey News' Future Watch Edition. I saw him at the WJC in Vancouver and he's going to be a great player, in my opinion. With Crosby and him as a 1-2 punch on the same line or as centers on different lines, they'll be set for a long time with great offensive punch. As for the current draft, it may be weak, but not for the Top 3 picks. This will give the Penguins 4 extremely strong kids to build around. (Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, ??)

Spector goes on to discuss the off-ice issues facing the Penguins and so forth. Go check out the whole article here.

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