Pittsburgh Penguins season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:29 PM ET
ESPN.com

Pittsburgh Penguins

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

If last year was all about potential wasted, then this year's version of the Pittsburgh Penguins is all about letting potential take its time. New GM Ray Shero has not followed the crooked path of his predecessor Craig Patrick, who won the Sidney Crosby lottery and then tried to make an instant winner by throwing a bunch of money at a clutch of free agents who had too much history and not enough desire.

Now that owner and former superstar Mario Lemieux is fading into the background, Zigmund Palffy has retired to Slovakia and Jocelyn Thibault has been relegated to inconsequential backup, the future truly belongs to Crosby and a clutch of stars-in-waiting like Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney and, even further down the road, Jordan Staal, whom the Penguins took with the second overall pick in last summer's draft. Few expect the Penguins to make the playoffs this season, which may be the best tonic for a young franchise that could mature quickly under the radar.

Offense: If we assume that Malkin will not spend this season fighting off his old comrades from Magnitogorsk in a Pennsylvania courtroom and will instead spend the season fighting off NHL opponents, the Penguins have a dazzling pair of centers around whom to build their future. Crosby has already come through his NHL baptism by fire with flying colors, finishing sixth in NHL scoring with 102 points as an 18-year-old. He fought off critics on other teams and in the media who thought he complained too much to officials and was a bit of a diver. Fair or not, Crosby persevered. As far as a supporting cast, Colby Armstrong will bear watching after he jelled with Crosby late in the season, collecting 40 points in 47 games. Ryan Malone also enjoyed a better second half. One imagines coach Michel Therrien will let the kids play and use veterans John LeClair and Mark Recchi, who cleared up a midseason spat with Crosby, as role players as opposed to using them in critical situations. The Penguins' power play ranked sixth; if it stays that potent, and assuming the defense improves, the Penguins should see at least a modest reversal of fortune this season.

Defense: No team allowed more goals-against than the 316 the Penguins allowed, so there's nowhere to go but up. Still, this is a work in progress, especially on the back end, which means the Penguins will be susceptible to good transition and forechecking teams. Sergei Gonchar was better later in the season, but he hardly could have been worse than he was for the first half of the season. Ryan Whitney (fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft) and Noah Welch (spent most of last season with the Penguins' AHL affiliate) are the building blocks for the future, and not just because both are listed at 6-foot-4. A penalty-killing unit that ranked last in the NHL should get better just through osmosis. Mark Eaton and Eric Cairns lend some veteran presence to a unit Therrien hopes will be significantly tougher but that still figures to be victimized on most nights.

Goaltending: The Penguins made Marc-Andre Fleury the first overall pick of the 2003 draft and then may have set his development back years by pitching him into NHL action in an effort to attract crowds to the crumbling Mellon Arena. Now is the time for Fleury, who turned in a big GAA of 3.25 and a mildly respectable save percentage of .898 last season to show that he was worth a first overall pick. The athletically sound Fleury has to become better technically and give his teammates a better chance to win every night, which means not letting in those soft, soul-sucking goals that he's become known for. Jocelyn Thibault, a disaster as the team's starter a year ago, appears set to inherit the backup role, which means depth isn't part of the Penguins' goaltending plan.

Coaching: It's a bit of a surprise that the sometimes thuggish Therrien remains behind the bench with the change in management. And given that GM Shero inherited the former Habs coach, one has to imagine Therrien will be on a pretty short leash. That said, everyone knows where they stand with Therrien -- if you aren't bringing it every day, you're going to know it. Not a bad way for a young team loaded with potential to learn the NHL ropes.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
13th It would be a great story if the Penguins could jump into the playoffs, but their defense is too young and their goaltending not developed enough for that. They finish fourth in the Atlantic and 13th in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. Whether this is the Penguins' swansong in Pittsburgh after almost three decades may not be known for several months, but if they are on the move Kansas City or Houston or Portland, the city could get the makings of a wildly exciting franchise.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Rookie Evgeni Malkin, the odds-on-favorite for Calder Trophy honors, has drawn comparisons to last year's first-year standout, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. A huge breakout season for both Sidney Crosby and Malkin might be a year off, but there's a lot of potential in the young duo, as well as in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is not a bad gamble as a No. 3 fantasy option with another year of experience under his belt. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Penguins:
1. Evgeni Malkin, 20, C, Magnitogorsk
Statline: 46 GP, 21 G, 26 A, 46 PIM
2. Noah Welch, 24, D, W-Barre (AHL)
Statline: 77 GP, 9 G, 20 A, 99 PIM
3. Ryan Stone, 21, C, W-Barre (AHL)
Statline: 75 GP, 14 G, 22 A 109 PIM
4. Daniel Carcillo, 21, LW, W-Barre (AHL)
Statline: 51 GP, 11 G, 13 A, 311 PIM
5. Ben Eaves, 24, C, W-Barre (AHL)
Statline: 5 GP, 1 G, 2 A, 0 PIM
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Pittsburgh Penguins
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record22-46-14 (58 points)
DivisionFinished last in Atlantic
ConferenceFinished last in East
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby is a rare talent who will only get better as he fills out physically and grows up mentally. Having Evgeni Malkin in the lineup to take a little bit of the spotlight off him can't hurt, either.
Winger: Ryan Malone
Last season, people were wondering if he'd be a dark horse to make the U.S. Olympic team, but at midseason they were just wondering where he'd gone. Watch for him to take a giant step forward this season.
Defense: Ryan Whitney
The eventual leader of the blue-line corps needs to take his game up a notch for the team to jump up the standings.

Key Moves
Russian star Evgeni Malkin was the best player not in the NHL last season, so his arrival cannot be understated. Every other change was purely cosmetic.

SportsNation
Rating the Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins finished last in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Penguins in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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