Pittsburgh Penguins Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
With all the roster turnover in the Steel City, it will be imperative to buy a program at the Igloo next season.
Then again, with how much general manager Craig Patrick has been wheeling and dealing in the past year, the roster could be outdated by the end of the game.
New head coach Ed Olczyk will be hoping to find a unit that clicks like the Aleksey Morozov-Mario Lemieux-Alexei Kovalev unit did in the first two months of last season. Lemieux is likely to begin the season at left wing on the top line with Martin Straka and Morozov. But after that top trio, it will be a crapshoot, with a lot of shuttling between Pittsburgh and the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton likely throughout the year.
"I've talked to all of our young players and given them a heads up that this is a big chance for them to play in the National Hockey League," Olczyk said. "I'm coming in with open eyes. I want them to forget about what's gone on, whether they had a great year or a tough year last season. There are plenty of spots available. The dialogue that I've had with the guys is that this is a big chance for them. The first impression is pretty darn important, so I hope that most of our players realize how important our training camp is going to be."
Few teams will have better competition for jobs in camp, and the possible line combinations listed below will scarcely resemble what ends up on the ice in Pittsburgh. For most teams, we have been offering only 15 forwards and eight defensemen, but 23 position players just won't do for the Pens, because they will likely exceed that number by the All-Star break.
The Penguins will have plenty of toughness with Matt Bradley, Kelly Buchberger, Steve McKenna and Reid Simpson, while skilled youngsters Milan Kraft, Kris Beech, Rico Fata, Konstantin Koltsov, Tom Kostopolous, Toby Peterson, Michal Sivek and Tomas Surovy will all be battling for positions on the scoring lines.
Brian Holzinger and Mike Eastwood are savvy veterans who can contribute on the defensive end on the third and fourth lines, but the Penguins have hotshot prospects vying for time in the middle, too, including Beech, Sivek, Matt Hussey and Matt Murley. In other words, the equipment managers will get quite a workout readying jerseys for numerous players who will get to know the 280-mile drive between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre quite well this season.
Eastwood and Buchberger will help Lemieux and Marc Bergevin provide veteran leadership to what will be an otherwise baby-faced roster.
The Pens were so impressed with All-Rookie team netminder Sebastien Caron that they signed him a four-year, $3.2 million deal and traded starter Johan Hedberg to Vancouver. Jean-Sebastien Aubin will back up Caron, who himself may just be keeping the crease warm until 2003 No. 1 overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury is ready.
"We are not just in it to compete, we are in it to compete and win," Olczyk said. "Our players know they are coming here to work hard, but we are here to win. We are not just going to be hnappy with the maturation process. We will learn a lot in both wins and losses, and we will learn a lot with how people handle themselves when things don't go well. We are in good position with where we want to get to, and you have to start somewhere."
A starting point is indeed needed, but it will be a pretty low point to begin from as this clearly looks like another rebuilding year for the Pens as they lay a foundation for what they hope are good things in the future.
Mario Lemieux, C -- As long as No. 66 signs the paychecks and ultimately calls the shots, he will be the Pens' go-to guy. Lemieux remains one of the five best players in the league when he's healthy, and without him returning for the 2003-04 season the future of the Penguins would be cloudy at best. Even with Lemieux in the lineup, the push for a new arena to place the crusty 42-year-old Mellon Arena remains stalled.
Super Mario's biggest challenge in what could be the final season of his Hall of Fame career will be to build support for the proposed $280 million which the team would like to see built across the street from the Igloo. Lemieux believes the Penguins can't survive fiscally in Mellon Arena past 2007, so a proposal would need to be approved and construction to begin within a year or so to have a new building ready under that timetable.
On the ice, Lemieux is a lock to crack 1,700 points this season. With 682 goals and 1,010 assists, Lemieux is currently sixth in NHL history with 1,692 points. However, he didn't score a goal in his final nine games last season, making that the longest goalless drought of his remarkable career.
Unproven offense -- Outside of the top line, the Penguins have a lot of unkowns up front. Pittsburgh will have plenty of speed with blazers like Koltsov and Fata, but they need to develop more guys who can finish around the net.
Not even the top-line guys are immune from criticism, as the team would like to see Morozov get tougher in the crease in the hopes of tapping his potential of becoming a perennial 30-goal scorer. But mostly the young kids need to adapt quickly to the NHL game and become contributors on the offensive end.
"We have some guys who have scored at the junior and minor league levels, and now is there chance in the NHL," Olczyk said. "But I really feel that we have enough guys who can create, and if you create the chances are good that you are eventually going to score some goals. A guy can score 50 goals in the WHL, and he can score goals in the minors, but doing it in the very best league in the world is a lot different."
How will Ed Olczyk do behind the bench?
The former broadcaster will be getting some serious on-the-job training in his first stint as a head coach. Even if Scotty Bowman was coaching this team and being assisted by Al Arbour and Dick Irvin, the Penguins would have a tough time cracking 70 points. Anything more than that and Olczyk should be worthy of consideration for the Jack Adams Award.
Tony Granato did OK making a similar transition last year from the broadcast booth to the bench. But Granato had 2 1/2 months as an assistant under Bob Hartley before taking over as the top guy, not to mention Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Patrick Roy on his roster.
Olczyk won't have the luxury of such talent, so his ability to teach and relate to young players will be tested. Olczyk scored 342 goals and recorded 794 points in 1,031 career games in his 16-year NHL career with Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto, Winnipeg, N.Y. Rangers and Los Angeles, so he will have instant credibility in the locker room. But having Lemieux looking over his shoulder could present an interesting challenge to Olczyk that few other coaches have had to face.
"It's a unique situation, because not only because Mario is one of the greatest players ever, but because he's my boss and a former teammate of mine," Olczyk said. "As with all the great players, you don't coach them. You work with them and you give suggestions, but what do you really say that they don't already know? I think I earned this opportunity by being myself and Ii'm going to continue to do that. It's a great challegne to work with and work for Mario."
Olczyk lists Bob Pulford, John Paddock and Lorne Molleken as his three biggest coaching influences and he hopes to borrow a bit of what he learned from them. With Molleken assisting him in his first season, Olczyk will have a veteran voice to help guide his young bunch through what will be a tough rebuilding season.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, 6-1, 172 pounds
The last time the Penguins had the first pick in the draft, they selected 18-year-old center Mario Lemieux of the Laval Voisins in 1984. So the selection of Cape Breton Screaming Eagles netminder Fleury at the top of this year's draft has a very lofty precedent to strive for.
Fleury was cruising along as a likely late first-round pick until a spectacular performance at the 2003 World Junior Championships vaulted him to the top of the charts. Though he went just 17-24-6 with a 3.36 goals-against average in his third season in the QJMHL, Fleury finished with a .957 save percentage and 1.28 GAA in leading Canada to a second-place finish in Halifax.
"From all indiciations, Marc-Andre has a chance to be an outstanding NHL goalie for a long, long time," Olczyk said. "Whether that is tomorrow or next season, time will tell. Craig Patrick did an unbelievable job to move up a couple of spots to get a guy who has the potential to be a goalie in this league for many years. For Craig to show our fans that we are committed and that we have started over and want to again give this city the excitement it had in the early 1990s spoke volumes."
The Pens claim that they will give Fleury a shot to make the team in camp, but Fleury's development would be best served by another year at Cape Breton in the QJMHL and one year in the AHL before claiming his spot in Pittsburgh in time for the 2005-06 season, when he will still be just 20 years old.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.