2007-08 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideFew teams enter this season with greater expectations than the once-moribund Pittsburgh Penguins. That's what having the game's best, most dynamic player in Sidney Crosby and an exciting young supporting cast in the form of Calder Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and Calder nominee Jordan Staal will do for your profile. The Penguins matured under coach Michel Therrien at an accelerated rate last season and finished with 105 points, the most since Mario Lemieux led the Pens to 119 points in 1992-93. Although the Pens were bested by Ottawa in five games in the first round of the playoffs, one has to imagine that postseason experience will be a terrific teaching tool this season. There are still questions about the team's defense and goaltending depth, but this team has all the tools to win the big prize. Of course, having those tools is a lot different from using them now that everyone expects them to win. OFFENSE
The Penguins were tied for third in average goals per game last season, and there is no reason to believe they shouldn't be in the same ballpark again in 2007-08. Led by Crosby, who is coming off his first scoring title with 120 points in just his second NHL season, Pittsburgh once again will prove to be a dynamic, powerful offensive force. The fifth-ranked power play should be dominant again, which means teams will foul Crosby, Malkin et al at their peril. If there is one area where Therrien would like to see improvement, it's in five-on-five scoring, where the Pens ranked 15th. Adding veteran scorer Petr Sykora should help, although he is known to be pretty streaky. Having Gary Roberts around for an entire season will go a long way toward reinforcing the work ethic of the young Pens, and his hard-hitting ways will open up scoring opportunities no matter which guys he ends up playing with. DEFENSE
The Penguins finished a respectable 14th overall in team defense and shaved almost a full goal per game off their goals-against record from 2005-06. Not bad for a team with a plethora of young or inexperienced defenders. GM Ray Shero moved to bolster that lineup in the offseason by signing Darryl Sydor away from Dallas. Sydor won a Cup with the Stars in 1999 before moving to Tampa Bay, where he won a Cup in 2004. He has some offensive upside, but that's not his primary concern, not with Sergei Gonchar (second among all NHL defensemen in scoring with 67 points) and Ryan Whitney (sixth with 59 points) around. Having veteran Mark Eaton for an entire season (he played in only 35 games because of injury) will help stabilize the group, as well. Expectations are high for former Canadian junior star Kris Letang, who will make a case for power-play time if he makes the squad. GOALTENDING
There remains some skepticism about Marc-Andre Fleury's ability to become an elite NHL netminder. But the number of skeptics surely has dwindled since Fleury's performance a season ago, when he turned in a 40-win campaign and was solid in his first playoff experience. With goaltending coach Gilles Meloche watching Fleury's development closely, he should continue to grow into the position. The issue for the Penguins is depth. Jocelyn Thibault quietly performed yeomanly service as Fleury's backup last season, winning six of his last nine starts as the Penguins finished fourth in the conference. Now, Thibault is providing support to Buffalo's Ryan Miller and the Penguins are looking to Dany Sabourin as a backup. Sabourin, 27, has played in just 14 NHL games. The Penguins also signed Ty Conklin, who is expected to start the season in the AHL, but his star has fallen precipitously since he was named the best goaltender at the 2004 world championships. COACHING
The view from the outside was that Therrien would have a pretty short leash when Shero was hired. GMs generally like to install their own coach, and Therrien's tough-guy personality had ruffled feathers when he came on in relief of Ed Olczyk in 2005-06. But Therrien defied critics who thought he wouldn't be able to manage a group of talented youngsters, instead showing a deft hand at handling some of the game's best young stars. Witness Therrien's use of Staal, who was a healthy scratch early in the season, prompting suggestions he would be better served back in junior. But Therrien brought Staal along slowly, and the 18-year-old emerged as an NHL talent with 29 goals, seven of those short-handed, a rookie record. In the playoffs, Staal was one of the Penguins' best players. Emotional with an undercurrent of menace, Therrien seems to have won over his dressing room and made his players believe all things are possible. Who knows, maybe they are. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 47-24-11
• Division: Second in the Atlantic
• Conference: Fifth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by Ottawa
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Let's assume the Penguins don't want Fleury to play 75 games. That means Sabourin (or Conklin) will be called on about 20 times this season. There is little to suggest either can do the job, which could cost the Penguins valuable playoff seeding. Defense: Ryan Whitney
At 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, Whitney has the potential to be a force at both ends of the ice. There's no doubt the 24-year-old can deliver offensively, but he struggled in the playoffs and showed he has lots of room to grow. Forward: Sidney Crosby
So he answered all the questions about being an 18-year-old rookie and followed that up by winning a scoring title as a 19-year-old. In the blink of an eye, he seems to have become a wise player who is comfortable in his skin on and off the ice. What next? Fans can't wait to find out.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Hard to imagine that seven months ago there was the very real possibility the Penguins would be headed to Kansas City or Hamilton or almost anywhere else. Now, there's a waiting list for season tickets, the team is committed it its new arena until 2040 and it's being touted as a Stanley Cup contender ... for years to come. Go figure. Where Penguins Will Finish
The Penguins will finish second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Pittsburgh Penguins will finish this time around? Who will lead the Penguins in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!