Pittsburgh Penguins 2005-2006

TEAM NAME: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

TEAM PAYROLL:

GENERAL MANAGER: Craig Patrick, entering his 15th season as Penguins General Manager.

HEAD COACH: Eddie Olczyk, entering his 2nd season as Penguins head coach.

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FORGOTTEN MOVES: The Penguins began to go into “shell” mode as the NHL lockout loomed. They made qualifying offers to most of their RFA’s and continued to shed some veterans with $1,000,000+ salaries. However, the Penguins made one high-profile move by signing Mark Recchi to a three-year deal, a sign of many more high-profile signings to come.

TEAM MODE: There are very few teams in hockey whose “team mode” is so difficult to decipher. Considering this was the worst team in hockey for the better part of three seasons who regularly traded offensive superstars for loads of cash, it is difficult to ascertain how the sudden cost-certain environment combined with numerous high profile additions will alter the teams prospects.

Personally, I see the Penguins as the second-best offensive force in the league (Ottawa being #1). Unfortunately, I do not see the Penguins defense being any better than 15th. Thus, I would say that this is not a cup contending team (they would have to be in the top ten overall defensively) but a playoff team that has the potential to upset a few upper seeds, possibly going a round or two.

All performance, including rankings and playoff potential, is going to be resultant of the rule changes. As stated before, the Penguins will thrive if and when the new rules are enforced. Since first part of the season will be riddled with infractions of the two-minute variety and the Penguins will likely possess the leagues most lethal power-play, they will likely be able to subside simply on cashing in with the man-advantage.

Also, the elimination of the red-line will allow the Penguins to expose teams who lack speed on the blue-line. With Sergei Gonchar and Dick Tarnstrom, two of the best passing defensemen in the game, the Penguins will be able to feed Mark Recchi, Ziggy Palffy, Sidney Crosby, etc, with outlet passes that can stimulate a rush more conducive to generation of quality scoring opportunities.

That being said, this is one of the few teams that will not have trouble adjusting to the new rules as the offensive players have always been known to cherry-pick, and Penguins defensemen haven’t obstructed opposing forwards since the early 90’s!

TO TAKE CHARGE!: The one blessed reality is that this year the Penguins season does not live and die on the health of Mario Lemieux. Yet, he still is the player whose leadership and talent will be the difference between the Penguins being a final four team and a fringe playoff contender. He is in the best shape of his life, and can still be a 100-point producer if he plays 60+ games. Plus, for the first time in a long time, he has a plethora of skill around him, and a possible superstar in Sidney Crosby to mentor. I expect a big season from 66, and if he can play 70+ games, a shot at the scoring title.

ON THE RUSH (OFFENSE): Here is a look at the Penguins key offensive players.

Mario Lemieux

The “Magnificent One” returns for yet another season at the ripe old age of 40. Purported to be in the best shape of his career, Mario Lemieux has numerous questions surrounding his abilities to deliver. First, can he stay healthy? With the exception of his comeback season, he has yet to play a full schedule without some type of injury. Now that he has players like Crosby, Palffy, LeClair, and Recchi to shoulder the load, perhaps he can take it easier and stay healthy throughout the year. Second, how will he perform under the new rules? Well, Mario Lemieux has been complaining about obstruction for years, and now he is getting his wish. If he doesn’t at least contend for the scoring title it might be time for 66 to hang up the skates. Finally, what will his role be? It seems as if Lemieux’s role for not this year, but the rest of his career, is to facilitate Sidney Crosby with a blazing start to his career. Anything else will be a bonus to him, the team, and his fans. But one thing is for sure, he has certainly earned the right to play, on this first line, and for as long as he chooses. Honestly, is there a team in the league that wouldn’t take this guy?

Sidney Crosby

I have only seen Crosby play ONE game at the world juniors. Thus, I have do not have enough information to definitively crown him as hockey’s, or even the Penguins, next savior. But consider this, his performance in the QMJHL is in a class of only three other players: Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, and Eric Lindros. And since most objective people in hockey at least consider Lindros to be a disappointment, he is still a 1+ PPG player; therefore, barring injury, you would have to extend Crosby at least that likelihood of accomplishment. His speed, skill, and maturity have all been well documented, so, with the information we all have, you would have to give Crosby a predicted scoring range of between 70-90 points depending on how many games he plays and how the new rules are enforced. Any production below that number would be disappointing; any production above that number would result in a coronation. What is important is that Crosby does well, not only for the benefit of Penguins fans, but for the benefit of the entire league. The NHL needs a superstar to generate interest and rejuvenate its image.

Zigmund Palffy

This has to be considered an absolute steal. It was widely reported that Palffy was shopping himself for the league maximum and that Pittsburgh’s style of play was so attractive that he decided to sign for $4,500,000US. That has to be the first star player I can remember that would take LESS money to play in this dilapidated city I call home. Palffy stretches the ice with his speed and talent. He is gritty, possesses a killer shot, and is not afraid to go to the net. He is certainly better two-way player than Alexei Kovalev and has the potential to score 40-50 goals for the team this season.

Mark Recchi

The “wreckin’ ball” returns to Pittsburgh, albeit a lot older. Still, with one year off to rest, Recchi is healthy and ready to go for another season. He is a solid player, who can still get up and down the ice with some speed. Unfortunately, with the addition of Palffy, he might be relegated to second line duties, but those are the types of problems that a time likes to have.

John LeClair

Formerly the best power-forward in the NHL. Has had a few back procedures in the past three years, but all reports indicate he is in good health. LeClair’s production has dropped off in recent years, falling to a 25 goal-scorer from a 40 goal-scorer. However, he adds depth to insure against injuries, throws Mark Recchi a bone considering he’ll likely be bumped off the first line, and adds a great front-of-the-net presence on the power-play.

Ryan Malone

The surprise of the 2003-2004 season. Malone, a 4th round draft pick (115 overall), stepped up in the “X-Generation” season as a player with top-two line qualities. Extremely versatile, he can play almost any position, on any line. I would like to see him as the 2nd line left wing, but if the Penguins are bereft at center for the 2nd line, he could fit.

Konstantin Koltsov

Lightning fast. His speed is hard to believe unless you see him in person. The problem is he cannot shoot worth a lick. Thus, he is your ideal fore-checking 3rd line left wing. He is very good at establishing pressure and keeping the play alive in the offensive zone. He would fill an excellent role as a penalty killer, and, with the elimination of the red line, he will have a few breakaways, chipping in a goal here and there for the team.

Lasse Prijeta

The wild card player on the Penguins this year. In the 13 games he played during the tail end of the 03-04 season, he scored 6 goals and 6 assists. Furthermore, during the lockout, he put up 16 goals and 20 assists for HIFK Helsinki over 45 games. A big center, 6’4” 225 pounds, he could fill the second line center spot that was left absent by Metallurg Magnitkogorsk holding 2004 2nd overall pick Evgeni Malkin hostage in the Soviet Union, oops, I mean Russia.

Power-play

After viewing the power-play league that has been the preseason, it is obvious that the results of the 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Penguins will be directly related to the success of its power-play units. The squad is loaded with power-play specialists and should figure to be one of the top five teams with the man-advantage this season. Let us look at three combinations, a first power-play unit, a second, and what I like to call an overload unit for end of game/crucial situations.

First Unit

Lemieux – LeClair – Palffy
Jackman – Gonchar

This line gives the Penguins a great playmaker in Mario, a front of the net presence in LeClair, a sniper in Palffy, a puck handling defenseman in Jackman, and a quarterback in Gonchar.

Second Unit

Lemieux – Malone – Crosby
Recchi – Tarnstrom

This unit maintains the strengths of the first, but adds a scoring winger in Recchi at the point combined with the speedy Crosby for enhanced transition purposes.

Overload Unit

Lemieux – LeClair – Palffy
Recchi – Gonchar
(Add Crosby as sixth attacker)

In my own, very humble opinion, these are the Penguins top specialists. I would deploy a unit like this in those key situations where the team needs a goal tie or where a goal would ice (no pun intended) a contest. All of these lines, of course, might never materialize or could change on a game to game basis, but, one thing is for sure, the Penguins certainly have enough depth for the power-play.

COVERING THE D-ZONE: Here are the key players who will makeup the Penguins defensive core this season:

Sergei Gonchar

Best offensive defenseman in hockey. Period. Excellent skater, highly durable, and will be a tremendous asset as a power-play quarterback. With the exception of Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Neidermayer, and Rob Blake, he is the defenseman I would want on my fantasy team. He will allow the Penguins to break out of their zone faster by getting to the puck and feeding it to the forwards. He also joins the play better than any other defenseman, will score goals, and rack up assists.

”Slick” Ric Jackman

Solid hockey player. Has a good two-way capability. Can play with any other defenseman on the team. Started to come into his own following a trade from Toronto in 2004. Could blossom into a top-tier defenseman under the new rules.

Dick Tarnstrom

Solid puck moving defenseman. An 80% Sergei Gonchar is the best way to describe him. Adds to the Penguins ability to move the puck, can also QB the power-play, and will be perfect on the left-point should the Penguins choose to use a second defenseman. Received an arbitration award above what the Penguins would have liked to pay him, look for him to get dealt mid-season if Ric Jackman or Ryan Whitney display sufficient offensive capabilities.

Ryan Whitney

The first in what I call the Penguins “draft bonanza” over the past 4 years. Very skilled, played in Wilkes-Barre last season and is primed to make the team. Will complement a group of puck handling defensemen and contribute to the Penguins capability to start the rush. Has a lot to learn, and will make mistakes, but is posed to be a mainstay on the Pittsburgh blue-line for years to come.

Brooks Orpik

Classic stay at home defenseman. Very gritty, and hits hard. Seems to have fallen out of favor with the team lately, usually because of his pre-occupation with the big hit instead of making the smart-play. Still has the potential to fit the role of the once-beloved Darius Kasparitis and be a strong crease-cleaner on the penalty kill.

Noah Welch

Recent Harvard graduate; big, strong, and smart. Another young, stay at home defenseman. Will be a hit or miss for the team this year. Has a shot especially considering the competition for 5th and 6th defenseman is limited at best. Underrated offensive skills. Will be another mainstay for the team as they move toward the future.

Lyle Odelein

Old school defensive defenseman. Literally looks like he is out of the Cro-Magnon period of human history. At the twilight of his career, he can provide the Penguins with dependable “no-mistakes” defense.

Possible Pairings

Gonchar – Jackman
Tarnstrom – Orpik
Whitney – Odelein

This would be a balanced approach to the team. Three young players complimented by three veterans. Three puck movers, two stay-at-home defensemen, and one balanced defenseman. I would certainly try to try this out at least at the beginning; it would be good to see how these players respond to the NHL spotlight.

Gonchar – Tarnstrom
Jackman – Whitney
Orpik – Welch

This is the “Let’s try to score 5 goals a game and who cares about defense” approach.

There are, of course, many other marginal defensemen on the Penguins roster, but I feel that if they truly want to move forward, they would go with the youth. Also, it has been rumored that the “knee-to-knee” specialist Bryan Marchment has been in talks with Penguins GM Craig Patrick. The only reason I could see bringing this guy in is if the young players do not pan out, and the teams needs a gritty, veteran presence. They shouldn’t have too many mediocre veterans on this team, the talent needs playing time and, quite frankly, the Penguins don’t care about defense.

GUARDING THE NET:

The Penguins goaltending situation is interesting. First, they have a future star goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, yet, they have just acquired on-again, off-again goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. The question is who should start?

Well, my answer is Thibault. Fleury is not ready. I saw him play a fair amount in Wilkes-Barre last year and he continually folded under pressure situations. For whatever reason, he couldn’t deliver in the Calder Cup Playoffs and continually got upstaged by freaking Andy Chiodo.

I would start Thibault and give him 55-65 games. I would let Fleury play here and there and on the second-half of back-to-back’s. Then, if he earns the spot, I would play him more and more. But the bottom line is that Thibault has put up solid numbers over the past years, playing behind a couple not-so-good teams. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see him play well in Pittsburgh, even if the defense allows a lot of chances; he certainly is used to it.

TALKING ABOUT MY GENERATION!: Considering there are a thousand people who know far more than me about this great sport talking about Crosby, I will leave him out of this section. The three prospects I want to look at are Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Lannon, and Ryan Stone.

Evgeni Malkin – C
6’ 3”, 190 lbs

Drafted by Pittsburgh in the 1st Round (2nd overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Excellent skater who possesses a keen awareness of events on the ice. Heralded for his ability to pass, Malkin also maintains a nasty wrist shot and quite a potent slap-shot. Unfortunately, the communists have held him hostage in the USSR, I mean Russia, for at least one more year, so he will have to develop in the Super League. Only the arrival of Sidney Crosby could knock this prospect down the depth chart, however, his capabilities will allow him to be one of the best 2nd line centers in the NHL for many years.

Ryan Lannon – D
6’ 2”, 220 lbs

Drafted by Pittsburgh in the 8th Round (239th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Ryan is a big, strong, and tough stay-at-home defenseman who clears out the front of the net and protects his goaltenders crease. Might be a future line-mate of another Penguins prospect, Noah Welch as they played together at Harvard. This prospect will bolster the Penguins defensive capabilities in the future, a quality in which the Penguins are currently lacking.

Ryan Stone – C
6’ 2”, 200 lbs

Drafted by Pittsburgh in the 2nd Round (32nd Overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft. Stone is an interesting prospect. He had an amazing scoring career in juniors and continued that in the WHL last season, putting up 99 points in 70 games. However, he might be forced to develop a Brian Rolston type mentality if he expects to crack the Penguins lineup in the coming years. With the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin already slated as the top two centers for years to come, I would look for Stone to possibly be dealt to a team looking for a future 2nd line center.

PROJECTED LINES: This is all speculation at best, so I will put forward the consensus line combinations that have been deployed throughout preseason. Also, I refuse to speculate what the 4th line will look like as it is nearly impossible to do with any semblance of accuracy.

The Consensus Lines

These combos are what most Pittsburgh media outlets are purporting.

Malone – Lemieux – Palffy
LeClair – Crosby – Recchi
Koltsov – Hussey – Prijeta

These combos give the Penguins depth and allow a separation between the veterans and younger stars. Personally, I think Crosby should be sandwiched between two goal scorers, the same goes for Mario. Putting your two best playmakers on one line is foolish. But if 66 wants 87 on his line, 66 will eventually get what he wants.

EXPECTATIONS:

Before we consider expectations, here are a few random thoughts and questions surrounding the 05-06 Penguins,

How will this team fare injury-wise? Can the stars keep it together for an entire season? If some of the better players go down, what will the isolating effect on Sidney Crosby do to his development?

Did you know that the Penguins, as far as “draft pedigree” goes, are as deep as any team in hockey? 11 of the Penguins roster are first-round draft picks, 7 are top ten-overall picks, and 5 are top five-overall picks. Whether or not this translates to a strong future, it is certainly something to keep in mind.

Will the NHL enforce the new rules? Aside from the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins will benefit the most from a wide-open style. Honestly, they never have stopped playing a wide-open style (with the exception of the Kevin Constantine era), and will be primed to bury a lot of pucks if the changes are enforced.

How much of an effect will the shootouts have on the league? This team is stocked with great breakaway shooters. This is a definite “intangible advantage” that could spell the difference where the Penguins end up finishing in the standings.

Is Sidney Crosby the next great hockey player? And I mean, does he join Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux? If he is, he will have a huge first season, score 70-90 points, and help lead the Penguins to a great year. The question is, will having so many great players around him allow us to know whether he is producing, or is his production related to his playing partners? Regardless, it should be exciting watch.

So how does all this translate into expectations? Expect the Penguins to be very entertaining and score a lot of goals. I expect Lemieux to contend for the scoring title, if he stays healthy, and Crosby to be rookie of the year. I expect the defense to get shelled and not really care, as four of the starting six would rather score goals than stop them. I expect Thibault to get hurt at some point and Fleury to take reigns and subsequently 40+ shots a night, which might not be a best-case scenario, but will surely give him needed experience. Finally, I expect the Penguins to make the playoffs, make a short run, and lose to the Flyers as some point because Pittsburgh cannot beat Philadelphia in the playoffs.

PROJECTED:

Considering all the variables that can occur during a season I have developed “best-case,” “worst-case,” and “likely” scenarios.

Best Case

Everyone stays healthy, Crosby is a superstar, and the goaltending is solid.

Penguins record is 50-32 (100 Points), they finish 4th in the conference, and lose to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final.

Worst Case

The team is riddled with injuries, Crosby becomes synonymous with Lindros, and the goaltending is inconsistent at best.

Penguins record is 40-42 (80 Points), they finish 10th in the conference, Mario Lemieux retires, and the Penguins move to Hartford (and me along with them).

Likely Scenario

The team is relatively healthy, Lemieux plays 65 games, Crosby scores 70 points, and the Goaltending is reliable.

Penguins record is 45-37 (90 Points), they finish 7th in the conference, upset the #2 seed in the first round, and lose to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semis.


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