Super Mario's World
Things are looking up for Mario and his Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite bankruptcy, the inability to get a new arena and losing seasons the last few years, the Pens have a promising future. The new CBA should allow Pittsburgh to play on a more level playing field with the rest of the league. And new investors are on the horizon from the west coast that should put the team in more stable financial position.
But the real bright spot is on the ice where the Pens have put together a nice foundation of young players to build around.
It starts in goal where the Pens have a future franchise goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. With great size, athleticism and quickness, Fleury has all the tools to be the next top French Canadian netminder to hit the NHL. Perhaps the pressure was too much for a young teenager to be the savior for an NHL team but if the Pens can field a decent team in front of him, he should succeed. Youngsters Andy Chiodo and Sebastien Caron will vie for the backup job next season. Both have had a taste of the NHL but Caron has the upper hand with more experience and a better track record in the pros.
The Pens have not had a good defence since Larry Murphy and the Samuelssons were patrolling the blueline. But now, the Pens are hoping that they can field a new big 3 on D that should carry them for years. Led by Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik and Noah Welch, the Pens should be solid in their own end for a long time. Whitney is the offensive catalyst that the Pens have sorely lacked on defence. He can skate and has a high skill level which allowed him to average about half a point a game in his first pro season. With more experience he should round out to be a nice two way blueliner who does a bit of everything. Orpik is the rock on defence that they havent seen since Ulfie. He plays big and tough and enjoys punishing opponents. The loss of a year may hurt development of his all round game but he should give the Pens a shutdown guy for a long time. Welch, another American, was one of the better players in US College on defence. His size is a coveted trait as his ability on offence where he shows some promise with his instincts and skill. Though he could use his size better and some pro experience would help, Welch should be a solid top 4 defenceman.
Since drafting Jaromir Jagr, the Pens have not had the chance to pick up a franchise forward for the next generation. That was until they managed to grab Evgeny Malkin. Though not as glamourous as his fellow countryman Alexander Ovechkin, Malkin is quite the player. Blessed with tremendous size and world class skill, Malkin has all the makings of a top notch centre. He is who the offense will be built around.
And the Pens are putting together a nice set of young forwards to go with Malkin. Ryan Malone is developing into a nice power type winger. Though he is not very physical, his 6’4 frame is tough to move and that should really help the Pens on the powerplay. Konstantin Koltsov brings to the Pens tremendous speed and skating ability. He has the skills to be a top line sniper but he simply can never bury his chances. But his all-round game will keep him in the lineup regularly. Milan Kraft is like Koltsov with the skill set to be a top line forward but severely lacking in the production department. Perhaps he needs a chance to play with better linemates. Sergei Anshankov is much like Malone in that he has potential to be a power type winger. with good hands to go with his size, he should be troublesome in front of the net and in the corners. If he can add sufficient bulk, he might be a force. Tuomas Surovy is another skilled player who could be a decent playmaker and point producer in the NHL. He is however very soft and may not be willing or able to play in traffic areas. Kris Beech was the key man the Pens acquired in the Jagr trade. Unfortunately he has had trouble living up to expectations. He should be a solid 3rd line centre contributing at both ends of the ice. He is a good playmaker and has shown glimpses of his creativity. Colby Armstrong is also another player more adept at filling a role on a checking line. Not much of a scorer, he should be a good checker, a decent grider and a solid dressing room guy. Ben Eaves is another guy who should be a nice role player. He is similar to Brian Gionta of the Devils in that he is small but can provide some energy and offence. The more open NHL style which the league is trying to create will benefit the small players like Eaves.
There are many others such as Michal Sivek, Maxime Talbot, Michel Ouellett, Shane Endicott, Johannes Salamonsson who at some point may have a chance at making the big club. Either way, they give the Pens some depth down on the farm and add to their wealth of young talent.
Pittsburgh is going to have some interesting decisions to make.
They only have roughly $5.5 million committed in salaries leaving them with a healthy load of salary cap room to work with.
Forwards: Rico Fata, Surovy, Pirjeta, Mark Recchi
Defence: Ric Jackman
They will need to try to bring back some of their key restricted free agents:
Forward: Beech, Kraft, Koltsov, Malone, Matt Bradley, Alex Morozov
Defence: Orpik, Josef Melichar, Dick Tarnstrom, Michel Roszival
And of course find the dough to pay their best player, unrestricted free agent/top centre/captain and part owner Mario Lemieux.
The team has tons of talented kids to work with and to build upon over the next few years. Recchi and Mario give them two proven scorers who should help ease the load on the youngsters. They may in fact make a splash in free agency and bring in another proven scorer like maybe Alex Zhamnov or Alexei Kovalev. They also could use some muscle as many of their youngsters are small and soft.
If they can add stronger talent on defence to join in*****bents Jackman and Tarnstrom to help the Pens younger blueliners, they should have enough talent to at least challenge for a playoff spot. It will be imperative for Pittsburgh to solidify their blueline so that young Fleury in goal doesnt get buried alive with 50 shots a night.
With a solid young coach, a bevy of top young prospect in the system and plenty of cap room available, and maybe funds coming in via new investors, the Pens will be a team to watch for and maybe in a few years time be back into the playoff hunt. And heck, if Mario returns to form and can lead these kids the right way, the Pens may be back in the hunt sooner rather than later.