Pens ponder unexpected success, look to future
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins crammed a decade's worth of improvement and uncertainty, progress and hope, accomplishment and anticipation into a single 6½-month season unlike any other in their 40-year history.
But what most encourages their fans is that there may be more to come, even after a season that saw Sidney Crosby become the NHL's youngest scoring champion at age 19 and the Penguins make the playoffs after the fourth-best turnaround in league history.
It will happen in Pittsburgh, too, not Kansas City or Las Vegas or Portland, following protracted but successful negotiations to build the Penguins a new home to replace 46-year-old Mellon Arena. That deal took eight years and the franchise's near departure to accomplish.
"This is a great day for hockey," co-owner Mario Lemieux said after the arena negotiations were successfully concluded with state and local leaders March 14.
Great day? The entire season would be difficult to top, unless the Penguins had somehow won the Stanley Cup.
Given their remarkable assemblage of young talent, one that may be the NHL's best since Wayne Gretzky's early days in Edmonton, there is considerable speculation around the league they may soon be ready to accomplish that.
A season after winning 22 games, finishing last in their division for a fourth straight season and placing 29th in the 30-team overall standings, the Penguins won 47 games and ended with 105 points. It was the second-best total in their history, and they barely missed going from worst to first, losing out on the Atlantic Division title by three points.
Their first-round playoff elimination in five games by Ottawa, disappointing to the franchise but not unexpected given the Senators' vast edge in experience, may prove to be only a slight detour on their road to a championship.
"I think looking at the big picture it's a great season for this franchise, it's a huge step and we're optimistic about the future," coach Michel Therrien said after a 3-0 Game 5 loss in Ottawa on Thursday night. "We learned over the course of the season about our team, about the character of our players."
All this from a team that, going into the season, would have settled for sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth and final qualifier.
"It's disappointing and upsetting," defenseman Ryan Whitney said of the Penguins' short stay in the playoffs. "But it's good to have been there, and now we know what it is all about. ... We're a team that could go far [next season]."
Especially given how far they've come since October.
Therrien himself began the season with an uncertain future, given the hiring of new general manager Ray Shero last year, and as late of January was rumored to be in danger of being fired. By April, he was a strong contender for NHL coach of the year.
Jordan Staal, only 18, went from being the No. 2 draft pick in June to a 29-goal scorer and one of the league's best penalty killers -- all during a season he was expected to spend in junior hockey. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury transformed himself from a promising but unreliable goalie who won only 17 games combined his first two NHL seasons into a 40-game winner.
Evgeni Malkin sneaked away from his Russian team in August, made his way to the United States and had a breakthrough 85-point season. Even a goal-less playoff run didn't dim all he achieved as the possible rookie of the year.
Sergei Gonchar, written off early last season as a $25 million signing failure by former GM Craig Patrick, was the second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen and a key to one of the league's best power plays.
Crosby? All he did at 19 was the become the youngest scoring champion in any major American pro sports league with 120 points and, given the Penguins' turnaround, possibly the league's MVP.
"I think there's no doubt that we can be proud of the way we prepared for this season and really came together," Crosby said. "The playoffs obviously were tough but maybe it's something that needed to happen for us to learn."
Almost forgotten amid the season-long stream of news is that Lemieux, exasperated after years of failing to gain an arena deal, was within days of selling the team to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie. The deal fell apart in December only when Balsillie balked at a league-mandated provision he not move the franchise under almost any circumstance.
And something to look for next fall, besides Shero possibly adding another top-line forward and a defenseman? (The Penguins have money to spend under the salary cap.)
How about making it Crosby, with a C? Look for him to become one of the league's youngest captains at age 20. Another note to ponder for 2007-08: Lemieux, though with an older cast surrounding him than Crosby does, won the Stanley Cup in only his second trip to the postseason.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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